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Last Year’s New Tech

Let’s take stock for a moment of a few really awesome new gadgets that are currently on the market. Specifically the new iPhones, iPads, and Kindle.

  • iPhones 6: For all intents and purposes, the newest iPones are the best iPhones ever made. They are ridiculously thin, have an incredible camera, and are wildly fast. I’m personally a huge fan of the new curved-edge design; the way the glass screen curves off the edge like a 4-sided infinity swimming pool is awesome. Not to mention the super-high-density of the iPhone 6 Plus’s display — it’s the highest resolution display Apple makes.

  • iPad Air 2 and iPad mini 3: The iPad Air 2 is hands down the best tablet ever made. It’s curiously thin and seriously fast. The iPad mini 3 improves on last year’s iPad mini by adding Touch ID and a gold option.

  • The Kindle Voyage: The new flagship Kindle is also the best Kindle ever made. And it’s not just an incremental upgrade over last year’s Paperwhite — it’s an excellent step up in terms of the design, hardware, and e-ink display.

If you’re in the market for a new iPhone, iPad, and/or Kindle — this is a great year to buy. Each device is the best its ever been. But…

Despte the fact that there are all these new and amazing gadgets, I think it’s legitimately safe to say that many folks will prefer the tech that was new last year. And, in many cases, there are some people who would be better served by getting last year’s gadgets.

iPhone 6 or 5?

You may not want one of the new iPhones because the smaller form factor of the iPhone 5s is better to you. It will work with the Apple Watch when it ships and since the iPhone 5s has Touch ID, it will also support Apple Pay via the Apple Watch.

iPad mini 3 or 2?

You may not want the new iPad mini 3 because its only significant difference over the iPad mini 2 is Touch ID. As nice as Touch ID is, I don’t think it’s nearly as critical to have on an iPad as it is on an iPhone. That extra cost would be better spent on apps which will improve the utility of your iPad far more than Touch ID will.

Kindle Voyage or Paperwhite?

On the new Kindle Voyage, I think the 300 ppi display may be the least exciting upgrade when compared to the Kindle Paperwhite. Yes, the lighting is better, the form factor is better, and the page turn “buttons” are a most-welcomed addition. But I personally cannot tell a significant difference between the 212 ppi display of the Kindle Paperwhite and the 300 ppi display of the Kindle Voyage.

I don’t mean this as a put down to the Kindle Voyage at all. Mine arrived yesterday and I’m thrilled with it. But, it is one of those situations where it’s not an obvious choice. The Kindle Paperwhite is still a really great Kindle, and the $80 saved when compare to the Voyage may be better spent on Kindle books.

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All this to say, I think it’s a fascinating product lineup this year — there are some truly amazing and wonderful products available. But for the first time in recent memory, it’s not a completely obvious choice to just buy the latest version. Last year’s gadgets may not only be the better choice from a financial standpoint, but also as a personal preference as well.

Some Awesome Print Magazines

Over the weekend I made some time to catch up on some reading I’ve been looking forward to. I’m a few issues behind in my Offscreen magazine subscription, and I just recently received the first issue of Lagom magazine.

These magazines are just fantastic. Offscreen has always focused primarily on the people behind the pixels. It’s mostly comprised of interviews, profiles, a-day-in-the-life-ofs, original essays, and more. All featuring the folks who many of us know from online.

Magazine seems an unfair category. For one, the quality of paper and printing is superb — it feels more like an extended, special edition comic book than something you’d find on the shelf at Barns & Noble. The advertising is classy and simple — never breaking up an article. And the content itself is meant to endure just as the quality of the paper speaks to the non-disposable nature of Offscreen.

I’ve been reading Offscreen since issue 1 (I was a contributor to issue 2), and the quality has so clearly increased.

This past weekend I made time to read through most of issues 7 and 8 of Offscreen and thoroughly enjoyed them. Issue 7 especially, it had an underlying focus on business and time management — two topics which are at the top of my mind lately.

What’s cool about Offscreen is that it’s filled with the sorts of articles and interviews that you’d almost certainly be filling your Instapaper queue with, except it’s expertly laid out on a printed page with full-color photographs. For a nerd like me who enjoys this type of content anyway, I love the different and experience of reading it in print. Moreover, when I’m done, I can pass off the magazine to a friend and let them borrow it for a while.

Lagom

And speaking of magazines, the inaugural issue of Lagom is now out and wow. I’ve long been a fan of Elliot Jay Stocks’ work. I bought every issue of 8 Faces, I have a copy of Insites: The Book, I bought the first (and last) edition of Digest, and now I’m a subscriber to Lagom.

Note: you can get the digital versions of Insites and Digest for free on the Viewport Industries home page.

Over the years, Elliot has clearly become a master at editing together a printed work and doing the design and layout. If you like Offscreen, you’ll also like Lagom. It, too, has a focus on the people of our creative industry, but with its own unique voice and style.

Elliot’s past work — especially Digest — served as a great point of inspiration for our recent re-launch of the Tools & Toys website.

As a physical object, Lagom is commanding. The book is large and thick, printed on hearty stock with a foil-embossed logo on the cover. Lagom is equal parts entertainment, information, and inspiration. I honestly don’t know what’s better — the content, the design and typography, or the photography.

Little Things That Improve the Way I Work on a Mac

Let’s talk about tools, services, and apps that can help you reduce cognitive friction during your day.

Computers are great at doing the boring, automated stuff we don’t like to do. So why not automate common tasks (like performing backups of your computer), pre-make decisions for your computer to carry out on your behalf (such as auto-filing certain email newsletters), and generally just find ways to make yourself more efficient?

I think the biggest reason we don’t do these things is because we don’t care. Seriously. In the moment, it seems easier to just continue suffering through our broken and inefficient workflows that it does to take a step back and consider if there’s a better way.

You could spend an extra 5 minutes every day for the rest of your life sorting through the spam and newsletters in your email inbox, or you could take 15 minutes today and tell your computer to do it for you.

I think another reason we don’t set stuff like this up is because we don’t even know what options are available to us. And so that’s why I’ve put together this brief list of all the apps, tools, and services I use to help me do things better when I’m at my Mac.

  1. Email Rules: In an ideal world, the only emails that would show up in your inbox are the ones you want to read. Email is not the enemy, but it sure can get unwieldy in a hurry.

    Step one is, of course, to unsubscribe from all the incoming email newsletters you don’t want to get. I am subscribed to some email newsletters because I like what they have to say; some of these emails I keep out of my inbox and auto-file them into my “Bacon” folder. I also have rules set up to flag certain emails that contain the word “sponsorship” or “typo”. And I use VIP sparingly — my accountant and my wife send me an email, it will set off a push notification on my iPhone.

  2. Keyboard Maestro: This is a utility app for bending your Mac to your will. It’s hard to explain what KM does because it can do just about anything. I use it to launch certain apps with just a keyboard shortcut; I use it to streamline the exporting of my podcast audio out of Garage Band; I use it for doing bottom-posting email replies when appropriate; I use it to automatically launch the Doxie importing software and to import all my document scans as soon as I’ve plugged my Doxie Go into my Mac; and more. Basically, what Keyboard Maestro is good at is automating certain certain tasks for you

  3. Hazel: Hazel is like the cousin to Keyboard Maestro. While also great at automating tasks, it works under slightly differently contexts. Hazel works with the files on your computer, and mostly runs under the hood. You can have it do things like automatically clean up all the files on your Desktop at the end of the day and move them into a “Desktop Cleanup” folder. Hazel will notice if you delete and app and then ask if you also want to clean up all the system files related to that app. Hazel can automatically take any new images you’ve added to Lightroom to your NAS drive and copy them onto your NAS drive for backup and archival purposes. And more.

  4. LaunchBar: The whole point of an application launcher is to quickly get to the files and apps you frequently access on your computer. You bring up LaunchBar with a keyboard shortcut, type in the first few letters of an app, bookmark, or file that you want and LaunchBar presents a list of the best results sorted by most-likely-what-you-want.

    As you use it, LaunchBar learns your most common searches and provides weighted results. There’s a lot you can do with LaunchBar, custom searches, zipping and emailing files, and more. I wrote a whole review about the latest version here.

  5. TextExpander: Surely everyone reading this knows about this utility app which runs in the background on your Mac to expand snippets of text into sentences, words, dates, and whatever else you can imagine. It makes a great tool for quickly punching out common things you type on a regular basis (such as common email replies, email signatures, misspelt words, etc.) For example, I use the snippet ;email to automatically insert my email address, and I use the snippet ;home to automatically insert my home mailing address. (A tip about using the semicolon before the word: that helps guarantee that the snippet isn’t something I would type in any normal situation.)

  6. 1Password: Another app I hope you’re familiar with. Yes, 1Password is great for storing all the various logins and other sensitive bits of information. But it’s also a very efficient tool. When I need to log into something, insert my Credit Card info, or whatever, a quick keystroke to bring up the 1Password quick entry window and I’m off to the races.

  7. OmniFocus: One of the things I most love about OmniFocus is the Quick Entry. I use CMD+Shift+Space to bring it up and quickly enter in a task. I also use a Javascript bookmarklet that will send the current Safari tab’s Title and URL to my OmniFocus inbox. I also have an Applescript that takes a whole Safari window of tabs and drops them all in to OmniFocus as a single to-do item.

  8. Fantastical: Fantastical is an awesome calendar app. And one of the things I like most about it is how quickly accessible it is (since it lives in the Menu Bar, a keyboard shortcut brings up the app instantly and I can see the list of my agenda). But I also like the natural language parsing. When it comes to events and appointments, we all just naturally speak in sentences. And so, having a calendar app that interprets that language so well makes it much easier to enter in new events (and reminders).

  9. Time Machine: I can’t stress how important it is to have regular backups of my computer. And Time Machine takes all the thought out of it by automatically backing up my computer to an external hard drive several times per day.

  10. SuperDuper: I also like to have a bootable backup of my computer. And I use SuperDuper to do this every night. And there’s an option in SuperDuper that will automatically launch the app and begin a smart update backup as soon as I plug in my USB drive. So that means, when my computer’s apps are all closed out and I’m ready to do the nightly backup, all I do is plug in the USB drive.

  11. Maximum internal storage: One thing I’ve learned about computers is that there is never enough internal storage space. I would rather spend my time taking photos and listening to music than shuffling files around. And so I always get as much internal storage as I can so hopefully I don’t have to keep fighting that ceiling.

  12. BreakTime: A simple app that reminds me to move around every 45 minutes.

  13. Timing: A utility app that tracks how I spend my time when on my computer. Hindsight is 20/20 you know?

  14. iBank 5: This financial management app has auto-import rules that properly re-name and assign transactions when I’m importing them from my bank. It also has income/expense reports, budgeting, and more. I know that any banking software worth its salt will have this, but I use iBank because I think it’s the best. I do all my own bookkeeping, and having as much of the busywork automated by my software helps me so I only need to spend less than 5 hours per month doing my books. (iBank also becomes extremely handy come tax season.)

  15. Tweetbot: I use lists when I need a quieter timeline and I use some muting rules so I don’t see certain tweets that I’m not interested in (such as those “whatever daily is out!” announcement tweets).

Things I need to improve at

For the sake of transparency, I want to be clear that I am not Mac Zen Master. My desk isn’t always free of clutter (it’s usually not), and there are many areas of work that I know I can improve on.

Such as my podcasting workflow. I record a podcast almost every single day, and it takes me time every day to save, export, master, and publish it. The routine is almost the same every day, but I haven’t found a way to speed up that process now that I use Auphonic for mastering the audio after I’ve exported out of Garage Band.

I also recognize that one of the greatest ways to work smarter isn’t by using a “hack”, but by simply getting better at focusing and seeing a task through to the end.

I know there are places I can get better at focusing and at improving my own habits. Such as not checking Twitter as often as I do. Or improving my habits for processing incoming emails. Even my task management habits need help. (Don’t tell anyone, but I often find myself playing the “due date game” with my tasks instead of properly assigning due dates based on actual urgency and then reviewing all my projects on a regular basis.)

Mindfulness

It can be easy to get hyper nerdy about this stuff, and to spend forever and a day tinkering and fiddling and “optimizing”. I listed out the above things not to say that you should be utilizing them as well, but instead to give you an idea of perhaps one or two ways that you could work smarter.

It just boils down to being mindful about the work we are doing. When we notice that there’s something we do repeatedly, step back for a moment to see if there’s a way to automate that task. And if there is something we do that annoys us, step back for a moment and question if that task is truly necessary — or if it can be delegated to someone or something.

A Few Thoughts on (the New) Kindles

The holidays must be approaching. The air outside is getting cooler, Starbucks probably has some new drink with fall-flavored syrup, new iPhones are about to ship, and new Kindles have just been announced.

The new Kindle Voyage looks awesome. It’s Amazon’s new, top-of-the-line Kindle device. The Paperwhite from last year is still available and has remain unchanged except it now has more internal storage. And the bottom-of-the-line Kindle now has a touch screen.

Three years ago I bought a Kindle Touch when it first came out and instantly fell in love with both the hardware and the ecosystem. One year later, I upgraded to the Paperwhite because I do most of my Kindle reading in the evening and having an illuminated display was a no-brainer.

Today’s new Voyage is a significant step up from the Paperwhite. It’s thinner, it weighs less, and it also has some great new hardware features which improve on the three areas I have most wished for improvement in my Paperwhite.

  • The Voyage has a higher resolution display. The Paperwhite’s 212 PPI display is great, but 300 PPI is better. That’s equivalent to print resolution.

  • Better lighting. I have a first-generation Paperwhite, and the lighting is uneven at best. In my review from two years ago I wrote:

    By far, my biggest complaint against the Kindle Paperwhite is with the way the lights illuminate the bottom of the screen. Underneath the bottom bezel of my Kindle are four LED lights, shining upwards to light up the screen. Yet they shine like spotlights, and it’s not until about 3/4 of an inch up the screen that their light beams blend into one another and you get a soft, even lighting.

    This is common. All the Paperwhites have it and nobody likes it. The darker your reading environment, the more pronounced the uneven lighten is. It’s unfortunate for sure, but it is what it is and by no means is it a deal breaker.

    The 2nd generation Paperwhite improved on this with a more (though not completely) uniform lighting. And though Amazon doesn’t say anything about the actual lighting (the display is still lit by a few LEDs along the bottom), but the new Voyager does have a sensor that auto brightens / dims the lighting based on the ambient light in the room. And so, the lighting is probably not yet perfect, but the best it’s ever been.

  • In the two years which have passed since I wrote the above, my “biggest complaint” has changed. It’s no longer the lighting, it’s the lack of a hardware page turn button. The way the Kindle Paperwhite works is that you tap on the screen itself to turn the page. The problem with this is that if you are reading with one hand — it’s quite easy to hold the Kindle with one hand, and so it’s common to be reading with one hand — it’s not easy to roll your thumb over onto the screen to turn the page. It’s even worse if you’re holding the Kindle with your left hand, because the left-side margin is where you tap to go back a page, not forward.

    Turning the page is arguably the single most common interaction you will perform with the Kindle, and it’s just not super great on the Paperwhite.

    The new Kindle Voyage is now the only Kindle with a dedicated button for turning pages. They call it a “PagePress” button and it’s a pressure-based turn sensor with haptic feedback that (should) make it easier to turn the pages when holding the Kindle with one hand.

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If you’re someone who enjoys reading, the Kindle is a delightful device.

I stare at lit-up computer screens almost all day long. And though I could read my Kindle books from my iPad mini, having a paper-like e-ink screen and a single-purpose little lightweight gadget is a most welcomed change of pace in my day.

But that’s not all. Dedicated hardware aside, there is another huge advantage to reading Kindle books over iBooks. And that is the Kindle Highlights library.

Log in to kindle.amazon.com/your_highlights and there you will find all of your highlights and notes from all the books you’ve read. This is, by far, one of my favorite features of the Kindle ecosystem.

I mostly read nonfiction books, and I highlight stuff like crazy. These highlights are how I revisit and rediscover the books I’ve read.

Additionally, when I’m browsing on the Amazon Kindle store and see a book I’m interested in, I don’t buy it right away. Instead I send the sample to my Kindle, and my Kindle’s Home screen doubles as both my library and my queue.

* * *

The Voyage is the flagship Kindle for a reason. It has refined and improved on all the “shortcomings” of the Paperwhite. However, if $200 bucks is more than you want to spend on a Kindle, then get the Paperwhite. Unless you really just want the cheapest possible Kindle, I would not recommend you get the new (plain) Kindle. I owned a Kindle Touch when they first came out, and though it was pretty great, paying an extra $40 is well worth it for having a higher-resolution, illuminated screen.

As for with or without 3G — only you can answer that question, but I bet you don’t need it. There are a lot of places where having LTE on your iPad is handy, but how many places do you really need cellular connectivity for your Kindle? For me, it’d only be when I’m going on a camping trip where I’ll be without wi-fi. But it’s easy enough to make sure my Kindle is in sync before I walk out the door, and it’s not like I’m going to plow through my entire queue of unread Kindle books over a weekend outdoors. And even if I did, my iPhone doubles as a wi-fi hot spot, so if I desperately needed to connect my Kindle to the internet then I could just do so via my iPhone.

And as for with or without Special Offers, get your Kindle with them and you can always pay the extra $20 later to turn them off. I’ve had them displayed on mine since 2011 and they kinda bug me but not that much. There’s no point in paying the $20 extra now when you can just as easily pay it later.

And so, if you decide to get a Kindle, do me a favor and use one of these links. I’ll get a small kickback from Amazon which helps me keep the lights on here. Thanks.

On Apple’s New iPhone and Watch

The live stream aside, this week’s Apple event was great. Now, I know these press events aren’t technically meant to be entertainment — they are mostly meant to be informational — but, Apple has always prided themselves in putting on a good show with these events. As a performance — as a “show” — the WWDC keynote was far more fun I thought. Today’s even was great in its own way.

Tim Cook was in rare form on stage. He had a blast showing off the Fallon / Timberlake commercials; he was super excited to show the Apple Pay demo video — so much so that he showed it twice in a row; he was awkwardly giddy at the end when he and Bono announced the free U2 album on iTunes.

Cook was more relaxed — almost giddy at times — compared to past keynotes. He was wearing his heart on his sleeve more than normal. Not a lot, but it was certainly noticeable.

My hunch is that Cook’s excitement had to do mostly with the Apple Watch.

Perhaps Tim Cook had a deeper hands-on role with the development and vision for this device than any other Apple product. As CEO, all the Apple products are like Tim’s kids. And ask any parent, you can’t pick one kid as being your favorite. But, with the Apple Watch being the first major new product in a new category to ship during his tenure as CEO, perhaps Tim Cook is more sentimental about this product release and announcement than others before it.

That said, here are a few miscellaneous thoughts and observations about the event and the cool new products we’ll all be waiting in line to buy.

The Live Stream Fail

It was an epic failure for the first 25 minutes. All around the world the Apple site was up and down, the live stream was failing, and when it was on, you could hear Chinese overdubs — you could hear both Phil Schiller and a translator talking simultaneously.

At just about 30 minutes into the event, the live stream started working again. But Apple introduced the iPhone so quickly — it was announced within the first 10 minutes of the show — that by the time the live stream was back up, Phil Schiller was almost on to talking about pricing.

The iPhone 6

The days of secrecy are long gone. We had rumor sites with full models of the iPhone 6 — we knew what it would look like. And we knew there would be two sizes: a 4.7-inch and 5.5-inch.

I haven’t had any actual hands-on time with either iPhone, but I did print out a paper mockup of each phone to get an idea of what the dimensions actually look like and how they compare to my current iPhone 5s. Yes, this sounds goofy, but based on the paper mockups I printed out, the 4.7-inch iPhone 6 doesn’t seem unreasonably large.

I am a person who prefers a smaller phone. I also spend far too much time each day using my iPhone, and so I appreciate any and all additional screen real estate that doesn’t come at the cost of physical usability. For me, I want to be able to easily pocket my phone and be able to easily hold it. The 4.7-inch seems to meet all those criteria.

Remember how freaked out we were about a 4-inch iPhone? How “perfect” the 3.5 inch screen was? And how nervous we were about a hypothetical 4-inch phone hindering us from being able to tap on every pixel and easily use the phone with one hand? It took a little getting used to, but everyone I know quickly acclimated to the iPhone 5/s. It is noticeably thinner and lighter than the iPhone 4/s, which helped, and once we got used to the additional screen space, the 3.5-inch screen of the phones of yesteryear felt stubby and cramped.

I suspect that is exactly how it will bode for those of us upgrading to the 4.7-inch iPhone 6. The new iPhone 6 is significantly thinner than the current generation, and with its curved edges will not feel too big. Just like the iPhone 5 compared to the iPhone 4, the iPhone 6 is mostly just taller. Though in this case it’s not only taller. It is also just a little bit wider.

In a month from now, those whom have upgraded will be acclimated, and when they look at the “small” 4-inch screen on the iPhone 5 they will wonder how they ever got any tweeting done in such a crowded pixel space.

The question is, of course, if Apple is going to stop here? How big will the smallest iPhone get? How long will the iPhone lineup consist of 4-, 4.7-, and 5.5-inch phones? Will 5.5 one day become the new smallest size? I hope not, but who knows?

The mobile phone market has asked for bigger phones and Apple has responded. Because not only does Apple want to make the best phone on the planet, they also want to sell as many of them as possible. This strikes me as a pragmatic move on Apple’s part — this time they have skated to where the puck is. Instead of holding their ground that their first design decision was the right decision forever, they are willing to make concessions to serve what the market wants. And the market wants freaking huge phones.

After the keynote was over, I asked on Twitter what size iPhone people were going to get. The replies were split almost right down the middle — a lot of people want the 5.5-inch iPhone. And I think it’s going to prove a huge success. Though it doesn’t appeal to me, those who do get one I bet will rave about it. Sort of like all those folks who got iPad minis when everyone else was holding on to their full-size iPad because “you can’t do real work on an iPad mini.” Well, I bet most of those who buy a 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus will never go back.

That Protruding Camera Lens

Kinda ugly right? Kinda “not like Apple,” right? Well, I think this is a place where Apple has shown their hand at just how motivated they are to keep progressing the camera technology in their phones. Their engineering team has made a phone so thin that they physically can’t pack the lens and sensor into it.

Remember with the iPad 3 and how it was slightly thicker and heavier than the iPad 2? It had to be in order to accommodate the bigger battery that was powering the Retina display. Apple had to choose between a device that was as thin and light as its predecessor, or one that had good battery life. They chose battery life.

With the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, they’ve chosen to make the camera as good as they can make it, even if it causes the lens to slightly protrude. As much as Apple is known for their design and good taste, let it never be said that they will chose form over function when it comes to the most important features.

One More thing…

When Tim Cook announced the Apple Watch (it’s going to take me a while to stop saying “iWatch”) he was grinning ear to ear. As I mentioned above, his excitement and giddiness were palpable.

Cook said how Apple loves to make new products. They love to make technology more personal. This could have been a place to show the slide with the street signs showing where technology and the liberal arts intersect.

Cook said he was excited to announce an entirely new product. That it will redefine what people expect from its category.

He then cued the video that revealed the Apple Watch.

After the reveal, he came back out on stage. His shirt sleeves rolled up with a white Apple Watch Sport on his wrist. And he gave a few fist pumps into the air. The room was cheering and Tim Cook was genuinely excited and happy.

As Cook began to talk about the Watch, he called it the most personal device Apple has ever created. “We set out to create the best watch in the world,” he said. And then he gave the four main bullet points of what makes it so great:

  • Precise (keeps time to +/- 50 milliseconds)
  • Customizable (sizes, bands, metals)
  • New way to connect and communicate directly from your wrist
  • Comprehensive health and fitness device

The Watch, of course, does so much more. It can be a remote for your Apple TV, it can show you notifications that are coming in on your phone, you can start reading an email on your watch and then “hand off” that email to your phone to reply, you can use it as a viewfinder for your iPhone’s camera, there’s a Walkie Talkie feature, and more.

But the core functionality of what Apple is shouting from the rooftops is 4-fold: precision, personality, communication, and health. I want to talk briefly about the latter two.

Communicate directly from your wrist

Communication is critical. We want more than just a remote control for our iPhones, we want something that can function like a miniature phone. This has been the promise of all the smart watches that have come before: view incoming notifications, control your phone, save the world. But they’ve been underwhelming because they are difficult to operate and don’t actually make things easier than just pulling our phone out of our pocket.

The Apple watch has some clever features from iOS 8, such as the intuitive reply buttons where it can guess what your reply will be to certain text messages. And there is Siri — you can dictate to your Watch for sending messages. And then there is this other way that the Watch lets you communicate with others (who also have a Watch).

Bring up a contact and you can send them small drawings, morse-code, and even your own heartbeat. There is a purity and childlikeness to this watch-only communication method that I am absolutely intrigued by. As a user, I think it’s clever and beautiful. And from a marketing standpoint, it’s also a brilliant way to encourage people to buy a few watches and give them to their friends. I know that if I buy one, I’ll probably buy two — one for me and one for my wife.

Comprehensive health and fitness device

The health and fitness features will be, I think, the Watch’s “killer app.”

For one, there is a huge market for this. The small wearable device that tracks our movement. Well, the Apple Watch does so much more than just track our movement.

They say that a big part of what separates lifelong athletes from casual exercisers is those willing to do the same workout day after day after day. Well, a big foundation that helps with keeping the motivation to stay healthy and fit is to have tangible short- and long-term goals as well as the encouragement and cheers of your peers.

The Apple Watch seeks to aid these in a new and unique way. Of course, it tracks our activity and movement, but it can also monitor the intensity of our activity. And it sets goals for us, such as to stand for at least one minute every hour. And then it communicates with our iPhone to provide reports and give us reminders about staying active and what our progress is. The data collected by the M8 processor, the pedometer, and the GPS of our phone and watch, combined with the fitness apps, combined with Health Kit, make for an impressive and comprehensive toolset for the average person to be more informed about their personal health.

Not only is that a popular thing right now, but it’s also a good thing. They say people watch an average of 5 hours of TV every day. Many of us work desk jobs and we sit in front of a computer for many hours at a time.

I live in Kansas City, Missouri and we are ranked as one of the most unhealthy states in America. We are also the BBQ capitol of the world, so…

But my point is, many of us are sitting down most of the time and we don’t get outside nor do we go to the gym. And if we did want to begin getting in shape, where do we even start?

While Apple can’t answer that question, they can make some significant innovations that will not only raise people’s awareness of their own health and activity, but it will also, hopefully, give them some tools and motivation to do something about it.

And for those who are already active, now perhaps there is a device that will help them with their goals and also be fun and delightful to use.

A Few Thoughts on the New Olympus E-PL7 Camera and the Olympus Micro Four Thirds Landscape in General

About a week ago, Olympus announced the E-PL7 camera. It’s available for pre-order now at $600 for the body only and will ship around the end of the month.

Reading the press releases and several of the pre-release reviews, ’tis clear that the E-PL7 is a significant step up from the E-PL5. The latter is a camera which I have long considered to be one of the best-kept secrets of the Micro Four Thirds lineup — it was cheap, small, and packed a lot of punch.

However, after shooting with my E-PL5 for over a year, I upgraded to the E-M10. My upgrade choice was driven primarily by my want for a manual control dial. The rest of the features of the E-M10 (view finder, better image stabilization, wi-fi, et al.) were just icing on the cake at the time, but they have proven to be invaluable.

The improvements in the new E-PL7 are almost exactly in answer to the very same reasons I upgraded to the E-M10 six months ago. In fact, the E-PL7 is such a step up from the E-PL5 that it’s now comparable to the O-MD lineup in terms of image capabilities and in terms of and what features it offers to the user.

The hallmark features of the E-PL7 include:

  • Wi-Fi
  • 3-Axis in-body image stabilization
  • TruPic 7 image processor that debut in the flagship E-M1 camera
  • A manual control dial
  • Improved auto-focus
  • New camera body design with more retro and more metal
  • Selfie-friendly viewfinder (no, seriously)
  • And there is also what looks to be an improvement to the 4-direction control nob on the back of the camera. The spin-dial on the E-PL5 turned out to be a joke over time and actually has become sometimes unusable on my camera body. Getting rid of the spinning part and just doing buttons is a good move.

Aside from Selfie Mode, the E-M10 has all these same hallmark features. And, as I mentioned above, the E-M10 was an extremely worthwhile upgrade from the E-PL5. But that’s where I wonder about the the value of the E-PL7. It’s just $100 cheaper than the E-M10, but for that $100 you get the built-in electronic view finder, twice as many custom dials and function buttons, and an arguably more handsome camera with a better grip and better build quality.

My point being, as awesome as the E-PL7 looks when compared to its younger sibling, I don’t know that it’s a no-brainer of a purchase. It’s terribly close in price to the E-M10, and the slight savings of $100 means you’re not getting things I think are easily worth that $100 (especially once you’re up in that price range already).

The Olympus Micro Four Thirds Landscape in General

There are three lines of camera bodies that Olympus is actively producing right now: The O-MD, the PEN, and the PEN Lite. And from these we have the E-Mn, the E-Pn, and the E-PLn respectively.

The OM-D line is the flagship / pro line. It currently consists of the E-M1, E-M5, and E-M10. These cameras get the latest and greatest technical improvements first, and then those advancements trickle down into the other lines.

Unlike the OM-D line, the PEN and PEN Lite lines have just one “main” or “active” camera body at a time. Right now those ar the E-P5 and E-PL7 respectively. It seems the PEN Lite cameras get the O-MD’s features first, and then they are put into the PEN family afterwards.

It’s getting to the point where all of the Olympus cameras are on a level playing field with one another in terms of their core capabilities to take great images.

All of their latest cameras have (nearly) identical sensors and processors. Which means, at the end of the day, they are all equally capable of capturing the same images.

And so, it’s what’s outside the camera that counts. Which features are important to you? What’s your budget? Which camera looks the coolest to you?

  • The E-PL5: If you want the cheapest you can possibly get, then I’d still recommend go with an E-PL5 still. There were some major advancements to sensors and processors in the E-PL5, and it’s not worth the money you’d save to get anything that preceded it.

  • The E-PL7: If you want the smallest you can get and aren’t super concerned about price, get the E-PL7 It’s just barely bigger than the E-PL5, but its improvements are significant and will be worth it.

  • The E-M10: If you want the most compact pro-level, the E-M10 is great. It is just a bit bigger than the E-PL7 and is only $100 more expensive. Yet it comes with some excellent professional-grade features that you’ll be glad you have if you plan on being even remotely serious with your photography habit.

  • The E-M1: If you want the most bells and whistles, the E-M1 is the flagship model.

For me, I’m extremely happy with the E-M10. It’s the right balance of being a small size while offering the additional pro-level features. But more on that once I wrap up my E-M10 review.

Last Year in Football (Part III): This Summer’s World Cup

Hello, again. This is Shawn’s cousin, Nate, continuing to guest post while Shawn is away. Some of you may remember me from the last time I wrote some guest posts. This time around I’m doing a mini-series on recent events in soccer. Or as 2 billion people call it, football.

Welcome to “Last Year in Football”. Below is part III. You can catch up here: Part I and Part II.

If you have any feedback or comments about these football articles, you can email me here.

* * *

Expectations for an exciting World Cup this summer were running high in the months prior. Cups in South America have traditionally been more infused with the free-flowing spirit of the football of that continent, if not also the gamesmanship thereof.

Going into the tournament, I was thinking along the following lines:

Looking Likely

The title holders and, dare I say, heavy favorites, were Spain. Having won the last three major tournaments that they entered (European Champions of 2008 and 2012, and World Cup Champions of 2010), it seemed foolhardy to pick against the title holders. With the controversial late addition of the deadly Diego Costa (Brazilian-born but Spanish nationalized) to the Spanish roster, the Spanish side only looked stronger. The warning signs were there, however. Prior to 2008, the Spaniards had never lacked for talent, only for sharp goalscoring and confidence. What they finally added in 2008 was a pair of red-hot strikers in David Villa and Fernando Torres, and a big dose of swagger. When their strikers started to age and/or cool off, and teams started to learn how to deal with their possession-heavy style of play, Spain stopped running up the scores but held onto their confidence and won a lot of games by close margins. Could Diego Costa be the injection of liveliness that Spain’s game had been missing in the goal-scoring third of the field?

Brazil had had a great warm-up tournament in 2013, the Confederations Cup: not particularly prestigious but still fun. Brazil stormed through the opposition in style, and it was a coming-out party of sorts for a young star named Neymar. However, Brazil’s performances in friendly matches in 2014 had been suspect, with Neymar looking increasingly alone in a dull offense. Betting against a host nation is always an easy way to look foolish, though.

Argentina is home to the little maestro Lionel Messi. No one ever wants to come out and say that Lionel Messi won’t win, because there’s the possibility that he’ll score 4 and make you eat a big slice of humble pie. The inner child of every football fan is always alive to the possibility of Messi dribbling six players and scoring, and with the World Cup taking place on South American soil, every team native to the continent gets the home team treatment when they aren’t playing Brazil. Although Messi hasn’t performed as insanely well for Argentina as he does for Barcelona, he’s still world-class for them. The question was whether Argentina could provide enough quality elsewhere to complement his mighty left foot.

Perennials

England, Italy, and France weren’t making any toes tingle before the tournament, but they’ve shown they can always be a threat. France were particularly impressive, if only by contrast with their previous World Cup squad which had failed so dismally in South Africa. 2010 runners-up Holland were also again putting a lot of quality on the pitch, and to our delight had been placed in a group with the previous winner Spain, meaning that a replay of the previous final was going to take place in the opening days of the tournament.

Germany, of course, always has technical ability in spades and usually goes deep into tournaments.

The South American factor

The aforementioned South American boost put a nice shine on already quality teams like Uruguay and Chile, and even added some gloss to other nearby teams like Colombia and Mexico.

The pot was bubbling over, and everyone was ready to eat! So what happened?

Brazil exploded out of the gate looking . . . mediocre. With a questionable penalty call necessary for their first win, at least we got a statement of intent from Neymar, with a brilliant goal from nothing.

The tournament felt like it really got started on the next day, with the replay of the 2010 Championship game between Spain and Holland. Spain scored first, again on a dubious penalty, and were bossing possession as usual. Then, just before half-time . . . magic from the Flying Dutchman Van Persie. It was a real shocker and it felt afterward like the blow that kicked open the door to one of the most memorable group stages in World Cup history. In the second half Holland scored four more goals as chins all over the world sagged to the floor in collective disbelief.

“Ok,” we thought, “Spain lost their first game at the last World Cup. They can pick up the pieces.” Apparently Chile didn’t get the memo and unceremoniously dumped the holders out of the Cup in their next game. The weirdest part was that it felt kind of like a relief. Diego Costa had played like a man with a ball and chain strapped to one ankle; he was obviously not fully recovered from the injuries that had kept him from playing in the Champions League final. With David Villa relegated to a substitute role for reasons I’m not sure anyone could articulate, and Spain’s other strikers proving ineffective, I didn’t want to see another tournament of 89 minutes of sideways passing with the odd half-chance mixed in. Out with the old, in with the new.

What else did we get to see in the Group Stage besides goals galore? A young Colombian firebrand named James Rodriguez making his presence known. The United States playing legimately good soccer in spurts, and finally overcoming their bogeyman Ghana. Mexico getting systematically robbed and still making it through. Cristiano Ronaldo looking mostly average (hehe). Germany looking terrifying and then bleh and then dominant. Luis Suarez continuing his sterling run of form. Messi finally scoring in bunches in a World Cup, and Argentina actually looking a complete team (their defense has been suspect in recent, uh, decades). Crowd darlings Costa Rica overachieving their way out of their group. The young studs of France winning with style, including what would have been one of the goals of the tournament scored while the referee was blowing his whistle to end the match.

And the goals. Did I mention the goals? So many goals. It was a joy to see attacking football prevail over the defensive style that had perhaps characterized the last couple major tournaments.

Once the smoke had cleared, we saw the following shocking list of teams going home after just three games: England, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Russia. Wow!

Once we got into the knockout rounds, we had more 1-0 scorelines and penalty shootouts than I would have liked, but don’t look a gift horse in the mouth and all that, yeah? Again we had great sporting moments: Tim Howard’s incredible performance against Belgium, this ridiculous Messi pass that I could watch all day, a volley from Rodriguez that I could watch all year, heartbreak for Mexico against Holland after a wonderful Cup-long display of heart and talent.

And not-so-great moments as well: the biting from Luis Suarez. The terrible foul on Neymar that cracked his vertebrae and ruled him out of the remaining games, and the infamous subsequent 7-1 mauling of Brazil by Germany (who could probably have scored more). For that matter, the ugly spirit that Brazil themselves showed against Chile and Colombia.

Finally we get down to two teams: Germany and Argentina. After the group stage it looked like Argentina were sound but not yet great, but surprisingly, their defense was the backbone of the team. Mascherano had shown that a concussion is actually a performance enhancing drug against Holland. Angel Di Maria, while not even at his personal best, probably outperformed Messi in the knockout games by sheer volume of output. Germany, of course, looked like the favorite after demolishing the hosts. I was a little afraid that they would repeat the performance, having seen Argentina out of the previous two World Cups.

What I didn’t expect was for Argentina’s attacking talent to carve out three clear chances and miss them all! One for Higuain, one for Messi, and one for . . . the other guy. Germany dominated the second half but couldn’t find a way through. Then finally, deep in extra time, just as we’re all resigning ourselves to penalty kicks, comes a wonderful goal worthy of winning the World Cup.

The pundits on TV talked about Germany through the tournament in colorless terms, like “clinical”, “precise”, “ruthless”, which I thought was uncharitable and a bit biased, albeit technically accurate. If England had played like Germany they would have been “open” and “free-flowing”; Brazil would have been “creative”; Spain would have gotten “it’s a joy to see their renewed energy”, etc. Germany were all of those things and fully deserved their eventual win.

I thought this World Cup was probably the best of my lifetime, certainly the best of the ones I’ve watched. It probably won’t go down as being “great”, because Germany were the only team that looked like a great team, and a great final needs two great teams to bring the best out of each other. But as a spectacle it was absolutely riveting, and it had so many great dramatic elements: villains, new heroes, overachieving underdogs, epic collapses from dynastic teams, and don’t forget about the buckets and buckets of goals.

Here’s my wishlist of 5 things I’d like have to have seen at the World Cup:

  1. Brazil knocked out by Chile. Then we’d get to see Chile vs Colombia, and the winner of that game vs Germany. I thought Brazil were too negative and Neymar was the only bright spot.
  2. A fully fit Diego Costa. I think Spain will be a force to be reckoned with again very soon with a fit Costa and a coach willing to cut Torres. That said, I thought it was insulting to Spain’s other strikers that Costa kept getting starts when he wasn’t up to par.
  3. Radamel Falcao fit and playing for Colombia. Colombia played out of their minds with just Rodriguez, how good could they have been with Falcao on the field?
  4. Suarez keeping his teeth in his mouth where they belong. He robbed us of his presence against Colombia and I like watching the guy play.
  5. The US holding on for the win against Portugal. If the US can top their group by drawing against Germany, that game looks a lot different, and we might get to play Algeria (whom we beat at the last World Cup) instead of Belgium. Why did the US play so well for so long and then turn off for thirty seconds at the end?
  6. (I cheated) One more attacking player in great form for Argentina, preferably an attacking midfielder to feed Messi.

* * *

What were your favorite moments or wishlist items from the 2014 World Cup? Let me know and I’ll drop them into the last column of the series, coming soon!

Last Year in Football (Part I)

Hello again! This is Shawn’s cousin, Nate, guest posting while Shawn is on vacation at an undisclosed location. Some of you may remember me from the last time I wrote some guest posts. This time around I’m doing a mini-series on recent events in soccer. Or as 2 billion people call it, football.

* * *

As a brief primer to the uninitiated, in European countries there are usually many hierarchical divisions of football, which teams can work their way up through by winning or placing high in the league that they are in. At the very top of each hierarchy is a division often referred to as the Premier League or the National League. This system is foreign to Americans – imagine starting a basketball team at your local rec center and winning for 15 years until you’re in the NBA. On top of that, there are tournaments where the minnows from lesser leagues get to play against the sharks from the big show and have a chance at a famous victory.

Some notes on the points system: in the world of European soccer, there are two kinds of competition. Knockout tournaments play out just like our playoff system after a certain point. But the league itself doesn’t have that format. In the league, you play against every other team twice, and at the end whoever has the most points wins. To an American this seems almost sacrilegious – playoffs are where champions are forged. But after some exposure I began to see the beauty of having to be consistent for the entire season in order to have a shot at the title. In a playoff system the most consistent teams are often punished for their extended efforts because those high-achieving players are beaten and bruised from a long successful campaign.

Football Year

This has been a fascinating year in football. The two major leagues I follow, the English and Spanish leagues, both had fascinating conclusions. Then there was a little tournament in Brazil you may have heard of . . .

Let’s take a look!

In the English Premier League, with 5 games to go, Liverpool was in prime position to claim their first league title in 20 odd years. Liverpool is one of those underdog teams that occasionally pick up two or three world class players and put together a run for the title, fall just short, and then can’t hold on to all its superstars. The exception to that rule is Steven Gerrard, who at his peak was one of the most terrifying midfielders to roam an English pitch. Stevie G is a titanic figure in English football; universally respected for his on-field performances and (perhaps somewhat begrudgingly) for his loyalty to one club. Liverpudlians and neutral fans alike were a-tingle at the thought of Gerrard winning his first League championship; we previously thought the moment might have gone, as he’s past his prime now. Liverpool’s success last season was less about Gerrard’s aging legs and more about the dynamic front pairing of Daniel Sturridge and one Luis Suarez. Yes, that Luis Suarez. A divisive figure if ever there was one, Suarez is perhaps the most talented footballer to don the Liverpool crest. One might say that he has a real . . . hunger to win.

Sorry.

He’s also derided for his intentional handball that ended up eliminating crowd darlings Ghana in the World Cup four years ago. To which I say, score your penalty kicks. Suarez did the right thing to give his team every chance to win and I would have done the same thing in his place. But I wouldn’t bite people.

Back to the EPL last season. So Sturridge and Suarez are combining to score goals left and right last year. With 5 games to go, Liverpool was in pole position (I’m not even going to attempt to summarize the drama that was going on at all the top clubs leading up to this point – suffice to say it was a wild free-for-all and no one was consistently winning at the end). Even better, both of their rivals at the top of the table were still in their schedule. With wins over both of them, victory would be almost assured.

Liverpool wins the first showdown against Manchester City in a 3-2 thriller! So far, so good. Four games to go, they win again the next week by the same scoreline. Six goals in two games, they’re firing on all cylinders, right? They’re going to need all the momentum they can get because up next is their hated rival Chelsea, coached by one of the most effective and boring tacticians of the modern game.

Sigh.

Chelsea wins 2-0.

Ok, all hope is not lost. Now Liverpool are even on points with Manchester City, all they can do is keep winning and hope Manchester City slip up. Or they could score 14 goals in two games to go ahead of Manchester City on goal difference (unlikely, in case you didn’t pick up on that).

Then came Crystanbul. Liverpool go up 3-0 against a team they should rightly be dominating and look set to cruise to victory. Unfortunately, karma from 2005 comes calling at an inopportune time. Crystal Palace score 3 goals to tie the game and effectively end Liverpool’s title hopes.

The images of Suarez weeping on the field after the game was a humanizing moment for many neutral observers and delicious nectar to his haters.

Almost mercifully, Manchester City won their remaining games. If they had dropped points, it would only have been that much worse.

In the end I think Manchester City were about as sheepish as could be for winning the league. It was universally felt that Liverpool had lost it more than MC had won it, and there was a sense of doom about the whole situation. Liverpool have labored in Manchester United’s shadow for twenty years now, and it feels like a curse that they can’t win a Premier League Championship since United’s star has risen and Liverpool’s has faded.

They did win one of the greatest games ever played on the big stage and clothed themselves in glory as European champions, but that’s a story for another time.

At least they can take comfort in knowing they’ll never walk alone.

* * *

As crazy as the EPL finish was, the Spanish League finale was even more dramatic. Tune in again soon for the next installment in last year in soccer!

Good Taste

It’s crazy, I know, but we finally got around to watching Jiro Dreams of Sushi. And wow.

Though the documentary tells the story of Jiro Ono and his sushi bar, it’s actually not about sushi. Jiro Dreams of Sushi is about art, craft, dedication, and passion.

I read a lot of interviews with creative folk. Sites such as The Great Discontent, and publications such as Offscreen and Insites, are all insatiably fascinating to me. And one of the common themes you find running throughout these interviews has to do with “consumption”. Writers need to read; musicians should listen to music; photographers should get out there and experience the world. Etcetera.

We know that’s true, but why? Why should writers be avid readers? Shouldn’t we be spending our free time writing?

Jiro Ono, perhaps the world’s greatest sushi artist, explains why:

“In order to make delicious food, you must eat delicious food. The quality of ingredients is important, but one must develop a palate capable of discerning good and bad. Without good taste, you can’t make good food. If your sense of taste is lower than that of the customers how will you impress them?”

If you spend all your time only making and never improving your own palate, you’ve placed a ceiling on the quality of work you’ll ever do.

Your homework for the week is to take time out and experience something incredible. Enjoy it and allow it to mold and improve your own taste.

Fit

In my article a few weeks back regarding working from home, I touched on the importance of staying physically healthy. Especially for those of us who sit at a desk and do pixel-related work all day.

The boiling point for me came about 6 weeks ago. My legs were to the point where they felt sore pretty much nonstop because of poor circulation. This was a combination of sitting all day and sitting in a not-great chair.

And so, I took action. I turned my desk into a standing desk, started running, and made a few small changes to my diet.

If you’re like me, sometimes you get paralyzed by indecision. There are so many options and opinions for how to stay healthy that it can be daunting. And so we put off making any sort of choice because we’re afraid we won’t make the perfect choice. Something I’ve learned over time is that when you’re facing a decision and you know you need to act, it’s often best to just do something — anything — and then figure it out as you go.

And that’s what I did with my health. My health changes have centered around three areas: diet, my desk, and doing something active. Of course there are other answers to these problems, but this is what I’m doing right now. And, perhaps, if you’re in a similar boat this will give you a spark to give something a shot and see where it takes you.

Eating Better

While physical activity is important, it’s only part of staying healthy. And for those who want to lose weight, they say that what you eat is more important than what your exercise routine looks like.

I’m not on a special diet or anything like that, but I have made a few changes to my eating habits. I’ve tried to cut out sugar and white flour as much as possible. This is a surprisingly easy way to improve what I eat. Instead of counting calories or any of that stuff I just don’t eat or drink things that have sugar. In the past month I have had sugar twice.

Breakfast Shake

Additionally, for breakfast, I make this shake (thank God for our Vitamix):

  • 1 medium cucumber
  • 2 cored apples
  • 2 big handfuls of spinach
  • 3 ribs of celery
  • 2-3 small carrots
  • 1 teaspoon ginger root, peeled
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • Juice of 1/2 lemon

The lime and ginger dominate. And cucumbers, apples, and carrots are naturally sweet when juiced. So it’s surprisingly refreshing and sweet. It’s a bit thick, but that’s okay.

It makes about 32 ounces. Which is enough for 2 or 3 people.

Lunch Shake

And for lunch, after my workout, I have this: * 3/4 C non-fat milk * 1/4 C non-fat greek yogurt * 1/4 C natural peanut butter * 1 big banana * Two big leaves of kale, or a big handful of spinach * Giant handful of blueberries * half scoop of protein powder if you have it (hopefully strawberry flavored) * ice to taste (5-6 cubes perhaps)

This protein smoothie is sweet and delicious. It’s full of dairy, protein, and fiber. It’s low in calories. And since the peanut butter, banana, and blueberries dominate the flavor, it tastes like a milkshake.

Standing Desk

Back in 2011 I converted my IKEA Galant into a standing desk. It lasted about 6 months before I went back to sitting. I felt better when standing, I worked better, and it was great to come downstairs after a day standing at the desk and to sit down to relax for the evening.

But standing while writing never felt right to me. I preferred the more “contemplative” posture of sitting.

Six weeks ago I once again converted my IKEA desk back to the standing desk. This time it has been different. Perhaps writing full-time for the past three and a half years has removed my sentiment that sitting while writing is best. Because I’ve been getting great work done while standing here. (I’m standing right now!)

But my IKEA retrofit wasn’t ideal. Primarily it was about 1 inch too short. I’ve been at this desk for nearly 4 years now, it was time to invest in something better. So I got one of those electronic adjusting desks at the recommendation of my friend, Ben Brooks.

The adjustable-height desk I got is this Jarvis desk. It is sturdy, fast, quiet, and amazing. I wish I had bought it years ago.

You can get just the legs and put your own desk top on, which is much cheaper. While it’s pricey compared to a cardboard box for hoisting your keyboard up on your current desk, the Jarvis is quite affordable when compared to many other options out there.

When I ordered mine it was shipping free on Amazon Prime. Currently it’s not available on Amazon.

I got it about a month ago and had it set up in an evening. I’m glad I got the electric version and not a hand-crank version. If anything, having the precision of getting the desk to exactly the right heigh for standing and sitting each time is huge. I can tell if it’s not quite right and that precision is worth it.

(And while you’re at it, be sure to get an anti-fatigue mat.)

Better Chair

I’m at my desk probably 6-8 hours per day. I stand for 4-5 of those. For the times I am sitting, I need a chair that will help encourage circulation in my legs and better posture. In fact, it was the poor circulation in my legs that brought this whole thing to a boil in the first place. At the end of the day, my legs would be sore because they weren’t getting enough activity and circulation.

I haven’t yet gone to a fancy chair dealership to sit in the different ergonomic chairs, but it’s on my list.

Exercising

From the age of 7 to 18 I practiced martial arts, and was extremely active in my later teen years. I was at the Do Jang 5 nights a week, my friends and I competed in the Colorado Karate Association, and I taught regular classes at the studio.

All those years kicking and punching took a toll on my joints. When I was 18 I found out I had rotator cuff tendinitis in both my shoulders. This is something that has severely limited my ability to do too much physical activity that involves my arms.

Finally, I asked a friend of mine who is a personal trainer if he would help me get a weights routine that would accommodate my shoulder pain. I’m not trying to buff up, just want to be fit. Also, having the set workout plan that he drew up is so helpful. I know what to do when I go to the gym, and that in and of itself was a huge obstacle to overcome.

Also I started running. I run on the elliptical machine because it’s significantly easier on my knees (which are also bad thanks to martial arts). At first, I assumed the elliptical machine was for wimps and so I avoided it. But boy was I wrong. Every time I’m at the gym it’s always the huge football dudes who are on the elliptical machine.

Thoughts on going to the gym instead of going outside

This past month is the first time I’ve ever gone to the gym to work out. Growing up in Colorado all my activity was outside. But for the past month, going to the gym has proven to be great.

For one, it’s an excuse to get out of the house every day. The 10 minute drive serves as a transition time to let my mind get pumped up for my workout. If I’m not in the mood to work out, I tell myself that at least all I have to do is show up and I don’t have to go running once I’m there.

But once I’m there and I’m around others who are working out, I feel ready to exercise. That community aspect is a great motivating factor to do my workout.

And, to top it all off, the gym offers a discount to businesses. As a self-employed LLC, I brought in a copy of my business license and get a deal on the monthly rate. Which also means that my gym membership is a tax-deductible expense.

Using the iPhone at the Gym

  • Apps: Having a plan for what to do is huge. I started using this Couch to 5K app, and I love it. I’m also slowly building a good workout playlist in Rdio.

  • iPhone arm band: I got this Belkin sport armband because it’s the only option they had at Target. It’s fine I guess, but I bet there are better options out there. The plastic cover over top of the iPhone isn’t snug against the face, and so it takes a bit of focus to tap on buttons. Which, when you’re running and this thing is strapped to your arm, it’s not exactly easy.

    However, when running on the elliptical machine I don’t use the band because I can just set my iPhone in the cup holder. Of course, then I don’t get all those step counts in Pedometer++. Ah well.

  • Earbuds: Finding good earbuds was a must. Over the past month I tried my go-to RHA buds, the Apple buds, and some Sony buds. The Wirecutter recommends the Relays, but I wanted wireless because three weeks with wired earbuds and I was going nuts every single run.

    These JayBird BlueBuds X were the Wirecutter’s 2nd recommended (and didn’t take top place because of their price). They’re not cheap ($150). But when I asked about them on Twitter, I received a significant number of replies from people who use them and love them. Nothing but positive reviews. So I picked up a pair and am very happy I did.

    It took me 3 days to get the fit figured out, but it was worth it. Though I wouldn’t say they’re perfect (still can start to slip out of my ears towards the end of my run) they are significantly more comfortable, more permanent, and better sounding than all the other options I’d used before. Just gotta remember to keep them charged up. Also, get these Comply Foam Tips to go with the BludeBuds X — they are much better than the rubber tips that come with the JayBirds.

Finding Your Fanatics

Building an audience

One component to building an audience, growing a customer base, and/or increasing word-of-mouth referrals is by sweating the details. Put delight in your work.

It’s the little things, the moments of delight and the unexpected quality in a product, that prove to our audience and our customers that we care.

When we sweat the details it shows. It’s proof we take our work seriously. And that builds trust with our audience our customers.

In the super-cool hand-drawn chart above, you can see that I’ve dissected what I believe to be the primary components related to building an audience. Seventy-five-percent of the work around building of your audience should be spent on the art itself — the content.

Your brand is also important. I’m not talking about logo marks here, I’m talking about your reputation. How do people perceive you (as professional or amateur; friendly or angsty; humble or self-centered; etc.)? What topic or subject people do people connect to you (design, development, typography, photography, etc.)?

Your content and your brand are summed up as being what you make and who you are. This is true for the individual, the small business, and the large corporation. And over time the two become deeply intertwined. What you make represents who you are, and who you are fuels what you make. Your brand and your content become one and the same.

If you are willing to sweat the details when it comes to all the things you make and all the expressions of your brand, then the overall result will be greater than the sum of its parts.

People notice when we take the time to build something great. They may not always be able to put their finger on exactly what it is, but they know they appreciate it. And they repay us with their accolades, attention, and money.

Thus leading to a healthy and mutually beneficial relationship between the maker and their customers.

The maker is happy because she is building something she’s proud of and is has the financial supported to sustain her work. And the customer is happy because she is buying something that was crafted with mindfulness and quality.

Committing to sweat the details is a commitment to the long game. It means not giving in to the tyranny of the urgent. It means focusing on quality from the start, and being willing to spend the extra time and resources to do it right and do it well.

In the moment, sweating the details often burns. But a month from now, a year from now, a decade from now, you and your customers will still be reaping the benefits.

* * *

P.S. This concept of building your audience and customer base through delight is from one of the new chapters in the update to Delight is in the Details that comes out this wednesday.

Update Coming to ‘Delight is in the Details’

Delight is in the Details

This coming Wednesday, July 23, 2014, is the launch date for the update to my book and interview series, Delight is in the Details.

I’ve been working on this update for the last couple of months, and the end is finally in sight. And so I wanted to share with you guys a sneak peek at what exactly is going to be included in the update.

  • Two new chapters: “How to Stay Creative and Build Delightful Products” — this is the preeminent chapter of the entire book. It’s the chapter that should have been in there when I first wrote the book, but I guess I needed another year to muse on this topic in order to discover the contents and focus of this chapter. This chapter is my best answer to the almost impossible questions: How do you do your best creative work every day? How do you make delightful products? I’ve also written a chapter on “Finding Your Fanatics”, that talks about how sweating the details in your work is one of the ways to grow your audience and/or customer base.

  • Three videos: These are short videos I made for this project. They cover (a) How To Stay Creative, (b) The Power of a Focused Life, and (c) In-House Design Teams. You can check out a teaser trailer for one of them here.

  • The audio tracks have all been re-mastered (this includes audio book and the audio interviews). I learned some Garage Band tricks since first producing the audio book, and I’ve found a website — Auphonic — hat does magic with the equalizing and volume boosting and leveling of spoken word audio tracks. I began using this on the Shawn Today podcasts a few months ago and the increased quality of the audio was instantly noticeable.

  • There are two new audio interviews: one with Matt Alexander and one with Jared Sinclair.

  • There are now transcripts of all the audio interviews. Perfect for those who prefer to read not listen. It also creates a searchable archive of the conversations if you ever want or need to reference them.

  • A new section: The Makers Q&A interviews featuring Tim Van Damme, Jeff Sheldon, Jane Portman, Sean McCabe, Kyle Steed, and more. Because great products are forged in the details, I reached out to a handful of my personal design heroes to ask them what it means to sweat the details, what delight in design looks like for their work, and how they spend their day to do their best creative work.

  • Updated book content with examples from the latest versions of iOS and OS X.

  • The Resource Index: a list of recommended websites, books, forums, and other resources that will help you find fresh inspiration, advance your current skill set, and/or get plugged into a community of peers.

* * *

This all started with little more than my intention fix a few typos, re-master the audio, and get the interview transcribed. It has instead turned into a massive update, and I’m extremely excited about it. This “2.0″ version of Delight is in the Details is what the 1.0 should have been.

With the updated content, this book and interview series feels much more complete now. It was predominately about making a case for sweating the details. But it now also gives you an understanding of what that actually looks like when done well, and, most importantly lays before you a roadmap for how you can change the mindset and habits of your own personal work life and even your company’s culture.

The new version comes out this Wednesday, July 23. I’m raising the price to $39, but on launch day it will be on sale for 25-percent off. Everyone who has already bought Delight is in the Details will get the update for free.

A Brief Review of the Synology DS213j

Synology DiskStation DS213j

A few months ago, on one of the more nerdy episodes of Shawn Today episodes, I was discussing local backup solutions, my need for a better backup hard drive, and some of the research I was doing on Network Attached Storage drives (NAS) since that’s the direction I was leaning.

All the data in my house consists of:

  • Files I’m using right now
  • Files my wife is using right now
  • Files we want to keep, but don’t use often (if ever)
  • Media (photos, music, movies)
  • Backups of all of the above

The files we’re using now live on our computers, obviously. The rest should be kept on another drive. I, however, had the rest kept on 5 different drives. Ugh. There were two old USB drives with different folders of archived data; two USB drives that I used for my nightly super duper clones; and a Time Capsule that was used for our Time Machine backups, except it bit the dust about a year ago, I hadn’t set anything up to replace it until recently.

I wanted to consolidate all of that stuff into one backup and storage kit that had more functionality beyond being just an external drive and could be expanded if I needed it to. Plus, I wanted to have redundancy with all this stuff — to know that all my old files and all our media and everything else wasn’t just being stored, but was also being backed up here at home and to an off-site service.

And so, now you know why I was leaning towards a NAS, and not just a bigger USB drive.

Well, at first I was thinking of getting a refurbished Mac mini and a basic thunderbolt RAID to attach to it. I knew I’d be able to use it as a media server, a backup destination, and that I’d be able to log in remotely from my iOS devices or my Mac. And, I knew that I could put backup software on the Mac that would do local clones of the RAID and offsite backups of it as well. But I wasn’t ready to spend $1,500 for that setup.

I’d been hearing a lot of great things about Synology and their DiskStations (especially since the software that runs on them was updated about a year ago).

After doing more research it was clear that what I wanted was the Synology DS213j. It would be capable of handling everything I wanted from a Mac mini + RAID setup, but it was much more affordable ($200 plus the price of two drives ($125/ea.).

The Synology DS213j has a gigabit ethernet port and two USB ports. I have it plugged directly into my Google Fiber modem. Which means not only does the Synology have it’s own Gigabit connection to the World Wide Web, I have a gigabit connection to the Synology from within my home. But that’s just the start.

It’s that operating system that separates a Synology from your basic NAS or RAID. With DSM 5 (the software that runs on the Synology), you can install apps and services onto that let you do some pretty clever things with all the files you’re storing on there. And that’s a big part of what makes a Synology more than just a fancy external hard drive. It’s literally a file server. And, it get’s better: there is a whole suite of iOS apps as well. But more on that in a bit.

Setting up the Synology

A site member who was listening to my aforementioned Shawn Today episode had recently purchased a Synology DiskStation but was no longer using it. He emailed me and offered to send it at no charge. I, of course, gratefully accepted his generous gift.

That was 3 months ago. I’ve since been using the Synology quite a bit and it’s time I shared some of the cool things it can do and give a look at how I am using it in real life.

For starters, I put 2 of the 3 TB Western Digital Red drives in there. Between all our media and all our archived files, we only have about 700GB of unique data to store. And so a 3TB disc is plenty and the WD Reds are one of the drives that BackBlaze recommends.

Putting two WD Red drives into the Synology

Here’s a quick rundown of how I’m using my Synology:

  • Consolidated 2 old USB hard drives I had that were storing random, archived files (like design projects I did back in 2006).

  • Created a Time Machine partition for me and one for my wife’s MacBook Air.

  • Created a partition for cloning my MacBook Air with a browsable folder structure.

  • Offloaded my entire music library and photo library, freeing up some much needed disk space on my MacBook Air. If I want to listen to music in iTunes I can see the Synology as a shared library. Also, I simply moved the photos in my Lightroom library to the Synology’s Data drive, and I can see all the images from past years right there within Lightroom still.

    Synology and iTunes

    Synology and Lightroom

But that is all pretty standard stuff for a NAS or RAID. Here’s what I’m utilizing from the department of Things the Synology Does That Are Cool:

Synology’s automatic backups of itself

For local backup: I plugged in a Lacie USB drive to the back of the Synology and set it up to do nightly local backups of the Synology itself. This is fantastic. As any nerd will tell you, a RAID is not a backup — even though you’ve got 2 or more drives in the enclosure (helping ensure that if one of the drives dies, you don’t lose your data), if the enclosure itself were to suffer catastrophic failure (power surge, bug, freak accident of nature, whatever) then it’s possible that all the drives in the RAID could lose their data. So, really, you want to have a local backup of your RAID.

For off-site backup: I set up an automatic off-site backup to Google Drive. It can also back up to Amazon Glacier, Dropbox, and other services, but I went with Google Drive because I have 1TB of free space thanks to Google Fiber. My Synology only backs up the files that are specific to it, (meaning it doesn’t send the Time Machine partitions there).

Synology on iOS

Synology also makes a whole suite of 8 different iOS apps that are for basic things like accessing the files and media on your DiskStation to nerdy things like monitoring your DiskStation or viewing your network security cameras.

The Synology iOS Apps

(From left to right: DS file, DS photo+, and DS audio. The apps are universal and work on iPad, too.)

  • DS file: this gives you complete access to the entire file structure of your Synology. You can log in over the local network, or, if you have QuickConnect set up, you can access your Synology from anywhere in the world.

  • DS audio lets you stream (and download) all the audio files on your Synology. And, unlike the photo package, when you set up the Audio package, it auto-detects the MP3s on the Synology and is ready to go immediately.

  • DS photo+ lets you browse all the images on your Synology, as well as enable instant upload from your iPhone and iPad’s camera rolls. It’s basically your own Photo Stream replacement service, except that it’s not super easy to automatically upload photos in-to (that I know of).

    Another small gripe I have with the photo app is that, for whatever reason, after installing the Photo bundle on the Synology itself, you then have to manually import or move your photos out of the file structure of the Synology and into the Photo app (which exists as its own partition on the Synology). Once added to the Photos partition, the Synology has to convert those images (which I’m not even sure what it’s doing to confer them, and it takes a very long time). It’d be nice if it would just let me tell it where all my photos are and then it automagically does the rest.

    However, since the photos and photo albums exist simply as a hierarchy of folders, you can add photos through the Finder directly via the mounted Synology. I haven’t gotten this far yet, but I see some great options for automating the photo importing and structuring process using some Hazel rules. I should be able to automatically get my iOS photo stream images in there as well. We’ll see.

To get the iOS apps to work, you also need to install the corresponding packages (a.k.a. apps) onto the Synology itself. With the photo viewer, for example, it’s a separate web app that houses all the photos from your Synology. You start by manually uploading photos to the album and then once they are there, you can browse them from your Mac, the Web, or iOS devices. And anyone with the login info to that photo album can view the photos (so good news for families).

Read / Write Speeds

For the first two months I was connecting to the Synology over my 2.4Ghz Wi-Fi (because I’m an idiot), and the connection was pathetic at best: 2-3 MB/s read and write.

A few weeks ago I dropped a Gigabit port by my desk and ran CAT 6 from my router (which is in a different area of the house) to the port. I then got a Thunderbolt Ethernet port (that came with this awesome Belkin Thunderbolt Dock) for my MacBook Air so I could take full advantage of Google Fiber’s gigabit internet.

The advantage of the Gigabit drop is that I’m now also getting significantly better read/write speeds to the Synology (obviously). I can now read/write to the DiskStation at 85 MB/s and 45 MB/s respectively. Which is pretty great.

If I’m on my 5Ghz Wi-Fi connection I can read/write at 24 MB/s and 15MB/s respectively.

Wrap

Since the Synology is attached directly to my modem, it has its own connection to the Internet. But all NAS drives connect direct to the modem (usually). The Synology is cool because, since it has its own operating system, it doesn’t require a dedicated Mac in order for the files to be accessible from my home or from anywhere else in the world. While it’s not quite as powerful as a Headless Mac mini plus NAS setup would be, it is about $1,000 less expensive. And if you’re just wanting to dip your toe in the water with this stuff, from where I’m sitting, a Synology DiskStation is a great place to start.

So, in short, I’ve got a gigabit connected local hard drive that is smart enough to back itself automatically. And it also serves as my own personal media center, photo backup solution, and it just so happens to have a suite of iOS apps so I can access all the files and media from any of my computers or devices from anywhere in the world.

It’s wonderful.

On Working From Home and Running a Business

If you work for yourself, you don’t have the luxury of being passive when it comes to things like community, finances, and work/life boundaries. These things are not taken care of for you by someone else. You have to take intentional steps and do your due diligence to make sure you are on the path towards “health” in these areas. Speaking of health, if you work at a desk, sitting and stationary all day, that, too, is just not healthy.

I’ve been working from home for myself for 3.5 years, and this past month I’ve been thinking about all the important aspects related to having a “healthy lifestyle” in the context of being self-employed and working at a computer all day every day.

If you just coast through your days, the natural trajectory will be downward, not upward. There is nobody to tell you when to take a break and when to call it a day. There is nobody to bounce ideas off of or to chat with at the water cooler. And if you work from home and work for yourself, there is no company retirement plan already set up for you, and your taxes are not automatically withheld.

And so, for those of us who work from home (and especially those of us who also work for ourselves) there is an huge need to take proactive measures to ensure the long term health of our body, our finances, relationships, creativity, and more.

Below I want to share with you the things I do to try and keep myself healthy. In 20 years from now I hope to be doing even better creative work than I am today. But that means in the mean time I need to stay physically healthy, creatively energized, all while continuing to run a profitable business. The good news is: it’s totally doable.

Finances

Before I quit my day job to write for this website full-time, I was already making some money on the side. In 2010 (the year before I started writing here as my full-time gig) this site was earning about $1,000/month from ads, sponsorships, and Amazon links. All the money I made from the site was “extra” — we didn’t need it as part of our monthly living expenses, and so it’s what I used to pay for new gadgets and software and to cover hosting costs, etc. I didn’t spend anywhere near the $1,000/month of this semi-disposable income, and so we set aside the extra into a savings account.

In February 2011 I took the leap and began writing here as my full-time job. Thanks to the extreme generosity of this site’s subscribing members, I’ve been able continue writing here for over three years now.

But there’s more to the story than that. When shawnblanc.net became my job, it also meant the income from the site was now paying the mortgage instead of being semi-disposable income. And so the first thing I did was establish a budget for my business.

I cannot express enough just how absolutely critical it has been to have a budget — both for our company and for our personal household expenses.

Did you know that most of America’s millionaires are people who earn low-six-figure incomes? They have a high net worth (between $1 – $10 million) because they live simply and budget their money.

That is the same philosophy I’ve followed with my business (and personal) finances. I don’t have a business credit card; I’ve never taken a business loan. Everything I buy that’s business-related I have cash in the bank for. And as a result, my company has been profitable since day one.

My point here is that those of us who work for ourselves — freelancers, contractors, small-business owners, et al. — must learn to budget and manage our business finances. The long-term health of our business and our household income depends on it. And that also means our long-term ability to do our best creative work depends on it as well.

That said, here’s my practical approach to budgeting and finances:

  • Business Emergency Fund: Enough to cover 3 months of operating costs in case everything goes unexpectedly south one day. This also helps with cash flow. For example: when you have sponsors and advertisers who pay net 30 or 60, you don’t have to live on debt until those invoices come in. In short, the money I’m using today to run my business is money that was earned 3 months ago.

  • Personal Emergency Fund: Enough to cover 6-12 months of household living expenses (food, mortgage, utilities, insurance, etc) in case all the income from my websites were to dry up overnight.

  • Cash envelopes for personal expenses: This is old-school, but it really works. My wife and I have been doing a cash envelope system for several years and it has been so great for our finances. Yes, there are apps which can manage our personal budget for us and can even track “digital envelopes”, but we like the physicality of actually using cash. There is more of a connection to how much you are actually spending. And we have found that we spend far less and actually accomplish far more than when we just had a general fund for all our variable expenses and simply made sure not to overspend.

  • Giving: My business gives 11% of its annual gross income to charity. Giving to others is very important to Anna and I, and over our years of marriage we’ve found that we give away less if we wait until there is an obvious need presented to us. So we are very proactive in making sure we are giving away at least a certain percentage of all our income.

  • Taxes: Get a good CPA who you can talk to any time you have questions or problems with your taxes. It should be someone who you trust. Let them tell you how much to set aside for your taxes, and then do what they say.

  • Investing: After charity and taxes, we take 15% of the company’s net earnings and invest it. Most of this is earmarked for retirement, but some of it I keep for investing in new ideas, etc. For example: I hired a professional designer and developer to help me build The Sweet Setup. I treated that as an investment in a new business, and now that The Sweet Setup is up and running, I am paying my investment back.

All this financial stuff isn’t anything new. In fact, that’s what makes it so sound — it’s old, tried and true advice. Basically, get/stay out of debt, live beneath your means, save for a rainy day, invest for the future, and be generous to those in need.

Recommended books about money

For help getting out of debt, and getting off the ground with budgeting and investing, I highly recommend Total Money Makeover, The Intelligent Investor, If You Can, and Money for Something.

Mental / Spiritual / Emotional Health

This is actually more about staying creative than staying sane. Because, let’s be honest. To be a self-employed creative person, you kinda need a little bit of insanity.

Anyway, I think there are two important things when it comes to keeping our creative juices flowing and our minds sharp. We need problems that are exciting and engaging. And we need to keep learning and experimenting.

Recently I wrote an article about the fight to stay creative. There are things such as isolation, ambiguity, fear, anxiety, shame, doubt, comparison, and disillusionment that can hinder and stifle our creativity. And there are things such as community, clear goals, trust, experience, rest, and diligence that can help stimulate and encourage our creativity.

In short, it basically boils down to having fun and serving others (which looks different for everyone). And that’s why it’s important to recognize if and when you’re feeling angsty, depressed, dried up, and/or burnt out. And if so, talk to someone about it, get help, and give yourself permission to make changes that will bring fun and life back in to your work.

Physical Health

I love working at a desk all day. I’m a computer nerd, I love typing and reading, and this space is my little cockpit of creativity. But they say sitting for hours a day will kill you. Literally.

The default seems to be getting an “Executive Chair” from Office Max for $79, then having a bad sitting posture with hours of not moving. Followed up by spending the evening watching TV from the couch while eating chips and drinking beer. Sounds glorious and affordable. But I know what my mind and body will be like in 15 years from now if that’s the lifestyle routine I fall in to. And it’s just not worth it.

Hopefully, my best creative work is still ahead of me. And so I intend to be physically healthy and alert for the journey. What this looks like for me is four-fold: a standing desk, regular breaks to move around, regular exercise, and a healthy(-ish) diet. I say healthy-ish because I still like ice cream fried foods, but not every day.

When I first started working from home, I set up a standing desk. I stood for 6 months before I went back to sitting. It’s silly, but since I spend a lot of time doing creative writing all day, I never felt in the “creative mood” while standing. But now, three years later, I am seeing the negative effect of all the sitting I do. My metabolism has slowed down and my legs are often sore. So a few weeks ago I once again set up my standing desk. And, to have the best of both worlds, I went with this Jarvis Electronic Moving Desk Legs.

Though standing is better than sitting, you’re still relatively stationary. It’s important to move around regularly. You could get a treadmill to go under your desk, and maybe one day I’ll do that. But what I’ve been using for years is this BreakTime Mac app. When you begin working at your computer it starts timing. And then at an interval you determine (anywhere between 1 – 60 minutes) it will beep and remind you to get up and walk around for 3 minutes.

One of these alone is not enough. You really should consider standing. If you sit for more than a couple hours, get an ergonomic chair that encourages blood circulation and good posture. Move around every 30 – 45 minutes. Exercise. Eat well.

Work / Life Boundaries

One of the primary motivations behind me quitting my day job to work from home was that my wife and I wanted to have kids. And I wanted to be a very active and engaged dad. Having a thriving relationship with my two boys, my wife, and my friends and family is so important to me. And a lot of that just boils down to time. Put the phone away, Shawn. Turn off the computer, shut the office door, and go play trains with your boys.

I don’t think it’s about balance: equal parts work and non-work. But about boundaries. Giving each area the focus and attention it deserves.

What this looks like for me is that I have a daily schedule. The first half of my work day (7:30 am – 11:30 am) is spent working on the most important tasks of the day. This is when I do most of my writing and podcasting. Then I have lunch with my family, and work on less-important admin tasks in the afternoon. I also have a dedicated work space downstairs that is where I go to work.

Also: Thriving Professional Relationships

A life of long-term creativity doesn’t tend to happen in isolation — we need one another for input, advice, encouragement, ideas, and more. Which is why, hands down, one of the most challenging aspects that I have faced in my life of working from home has been the lack of face-to-face community.

Things still are not ideal — I would love to have a small team of comrades and co-workers that I meet for work every day, and hopefully one day things will reach that point — but I have some ways of staying connected and staying in community.

I’m in a few Group Me groups with some fellow nerds and we chat about life and stuff during the day; I talk with several friends over AIM / iMessage during the day; I go to a coworking space (though not as often as I used to); I get out and work from a coffee shop usually at least once or twice per week; I have lunch each week with a few friends; I go to local design/tech/small-business-owner meetups whenever possible; I go to design/tech conferences at least once or twice per year.

Also: Weekend Hobbies

Work with your head? Try resting with your hands. For one, I try to spend Saturday away from my computer. It’s our family day, and so we run errands, go to the park, hang out together, etc. Also, woodworking is my favorite hobby. One of my favorite ways to unwind from all the pixels is to build something with lumber and power tools.

Take Action

The hard part now is to actually do something about this. If you’re like me, it’s pretty easy to look at an area of my life and instantly recognize that it could be better.

What I’ve found is that each of these areas serves as doorway to the others. Meaning, once you tackle one area — say, budgeting, for instance — then that gives you the momentum to tackle another area, such as having and keeping a schedule. So my advice is to pick just one thing you’d like to focus on and spend a month just slowly working on it, giving yourself lots of leeway and grace as you figure things out.

I for one hope to still be doing awesome creative work 20 years from now. There are a lot of approaches and a lot of answers to the above problems. It’s all seems to be such a moving vehicle, and you figure things out as you go. Which is why what’s most important is to simply start and take action.

Gigabit’d

Two years ago, Google started bringing fiber to Kansas City. And it took them until today to make their way to my house.

Google Fiber

In the 2 years between their original announcement and when service became available in my neighborhood, I thought quite a bit about if I was willing to let Google be my Internet Service Provider.

The biggest question I had to ask myself: will Google be using my online activity to sell me ads? The answer is: certainly.

So then I had to ask myself if I was okay with that. And the answer is: yes I am.

Google is already trying to sell me ads. They have been ever since I signed up for the Gmail beta back in 2006 or whenever.

Obviously, now that they’re my ISP, they will be able to garner more information about my house. Basically they now have visibility into anything we do online that’s not an encrypted transaction, such as the movies we stream from Netflix, the products we browse on Amazon, what songs we stream over Rdio, every website we visit, and who knows what else. It sounds creepy when you put it like that, but it’s also no different than any other ISP relationship I’ve had (AOL, Time Warner, Verizon, AT&T). It’s just that none of the others were in to Big Data as much as Google is.

And it’s not dangerous. All our most sensitive information is still safe because it’s transferred over encrypted connections (emails, passwords, iMessages, SSL encrypted sites like my bank, et al.).

All that to say, I am comfortable with Google as my ISP. Because in exchange, I now have internet speeds that are 20 times faster than the fastest I could pay TWC to provide. And it’s for the same price of $70/month.

Google Fiber Speed Test

In many ways, the faster speeds won’t have a huge impact on my day-to-day life. Just because I have 20x faster internet doesn’t mean I will get 20x more work done. My Rdio songs won’t sound any better, my emails won’t send or receive all that noticeably quicker, etc.

But Netflix will stream in higher quality. My daily podcast now uploads in one second (literally). Safari will connect to websites and servers quicker thanks to the fantastic ping rate with Google Fiber, and media-rich sites will load sooner. Big file downloads will be noticeably faster. And who knows what else.

Moreover, it seems worth mentioning that the entire signup and installation process for Google Fiber was incredible. Believe it or not, Google was extremely organized, friendly, clear, and efficient. All of the automated systems they had in place for contacting me when Fiber became available, and for helping me schedule the installation were clear and easy. The technicians who came to my house to run the lines and set up the network box were very friendly. And the one time I had to call customer service to re-schedule an appointment, the lady I spoke to on the phone knew exactly what she was talking about. So far, I’ve been impressed with the whole process and service.

Command Space: A Review of LaunchBar and a History of Application Launchers

For the persnickety power-user, there is but one way to navigate around a computer: with the keyboard.

Let’s talk about application launchers

Want to launch an app on your Mac? There is, ahem, an app for that.

Whenever I do a clean install of my Mac (which is less often these days), the first application I download is LaunchBar.

Because to me, my application launcher is how I get around my computer. Without LaunchBar installed it’s like I’m at a friend’s house, trying to navigate to the kitchen in the middle of the night and I can’t find the light switches and I keep stubbing my toes on the furniture.

On average, I bring up LaunchBar about 40 times per day when I’m working at my computer. I spend about 6 of my working hours at my Mac, which equates to using LaunchBar about once every 10 minutes.

I’ve been using a Mac for 10 years. My first application launcher was Quicksilver, but when it farted out on Snow Leopard in 2009 I switched to LaunchBar. In 2011 I spent several months using Alfred, and I’ve switched over to it on occasion since then as well to stay abreast of its development.

There are plenty of other apps I spend more time in, but none I use more frequently than my application launcher.

If ever there was an app that needed to be as frictionless as possible, it would be the application launcher. It should come up instantly when prompted, it should respond instantly, and I should never feel lost or confused when using it. The whole point is fast launching and fast actions.

Some use cases for an application launcher include launching apps, launching bookmarks, launching AppleScripts, performing custom searches on various sites, doing quick mathematical calculations, opening files, getting at the recently-opened files within a certain app, accessing the clipboard history, performing actions on files (like grabbing a document and attaching it to an email, or resizing an image), and more.

Bottom line, what makes an application launcher such a critical tool is that it’s the fastest way launch and act on common apps, documents, bookmarks, and more.

But it doesn’t end there. LaunchBar and Alfred actually become more personalized as you use them. They literally learn your behavior by weighting certain search results and findings based on your usage over time, and they can be customized to only index the things you’re interested in accessing so that they act as fast as possible.

With Yosemite, Apple has promoted Spotlight to a more front-and-center position, and they are giving it a bit more “power”. So where did this idea of an application launcher come from? I’m glad you asked…

Other application launchers

Though LaunchBar is the original (not including the NeXTSTEP Dock), it’s not the only application launcher available on the Mac today.

For the sake of this article, an application launcher will be defined as any tool on your computer which provides a shortcut to finding and activating files and programs.

The Dock, for example, is the premier application launcher and it ships with OS X. Spotlight is also an application launcher. And there is Launchpad, but does anybody use it?

There are two functions that I consider to be the most important with an application launcher: (a) quickly finding and launching applications, files, and more; and (b) instantly activating an application or script with the use of a pre-defined global hotkey.

Alas, LaunchBar, which is this author’s application launcher of choice, does not have global keyboard shortcuts built in. Alfred and Quicksilver do. And so, in order to instantly activate an application I use a second application, Keyboard Maestro. For example: Mail is Shift+Command+M; Tweetbot is Alt+Command+T; nvALT is Alt+Command+N.

Though the Dock is convenient and ever-present, there are some shortcomings that a dedicated application launcher such as LaunchBar solves. And, in fact, it was this type of shortcoming that actually lead to the development of LaunchBar — the original 3rd-party application launcher.

An aside about Alfred

I think it’s fair to say that the king of the Application Launcher Market is Alfred. I conducted a detailed survey back in 2011 and another more casual one a few months ago, and the majority response to those surveys was that people use Alfred as their application launcher of choice.

Moreover, Alfred is what I recommend over at The Sweet Setup as one of the applications all moderately computer savvy folks should use on their Mac.

Alfred is, without question, a fantastic app. It is actively maintained, well designed, easy to use, and extremely powerful. The reason I pick it for people new to application launchers is that it’s easy to ease in to (when you type into the field, you can take as long as you like), it’s free for the basic feature set, and then you can grow into it if you want to buy the power pack.

But I personally prefer LaunchBar for a few reasons…

LaunchBar

My reasons for using LaunchBar are two fold. For one, I like the way LaunchBar handles Instant Send, browsing recent documents in apps, and its clipboard manager. Secondly, I like that LaunchBar is the original application launcher. It has a long and rich history of development on the Mac that spans literally 20 years. And I’m the sort of fellow who appreciates things like that.

So, all this to say, my review of and praise for LaunchBar is not a simultaneous knock against Alfred. I hope that, regardless of your Application Launcher of Choice, you can enjoy this article for what it is: a story about one of the finest and oldest Mac applications still in active development.

The “Command+Space” Origin Story

The original application launcher was, in fact, LaunchBar. It started back in 1995 and ran on NeXTSTEP.

About 11 years ago, Norbert Heger, the original developer of LaunchBar, shared about the history of this fine app in an interview with Derrick Story.

In the interview, Norbert shares about how when your files are organized with hierarchical structure it is more difficult to get to them quickly. And the sort of person who cares about organized hierarchal structure with their files, folders, is likely to be the sort of person who also cares about being able to get to all of those files and folders and applications quickly because they spend a lot of time making the most out of their computer.

And so, in 1995, LaunchBar began. At first it was a collection of shell scripts and a Terminal window. But as the internal team over at Objective Development used it more and more, they realized that it was a tool the general public would probably benefit from. So in 1996 they released a public beta.

Norbert Heger:

The very first “prototype” was not even an application. It all began with dozens of little shell scripts and a tiny Terminal window. Each of the scripts had a very short one- or two-letter name and just opened one specific application or document. The Terminal window was placed in one of the screen corners, allowing us to bring it to the front quickly using the mouse. When we wanted to launch Interface Builder, for instance, we just had to click that screen corner, enter “IB” (the name of the script we’ve prepared to launch Interface Builder) and hit Return.

From there they developed a rating algorithm and automatic indexing so that you wouldn’t have to write new shell scripts for every app, file, or folder you wanted to launch.

They also came up with the keyboard shortcut that we still use today:

Johannes Tiefenbrunner “invented” the Command-Space hotkey back in 1995. In NEXTSTEP it was nearly impossible to implement a system wide hotkey, but Johannes found a way to patch the Display Postscript Server (also responsible for dispatching keyboard and mouse events), allowing us to activate LaunchBar with a single keystroke. Fortunately, these things became much easier to accomplish in Mac OS X.

LaunchBar 1, running on NeXTSTEP — Circa 1995

LaunchBar version 1

LaunchBar 2, running on Rhapsody

LaunchBar version 2

In 2001, Objective Development ported LaunchBar to OS X. They gave it a mostly “default looking” design, which stayed pretty consisted for the next 12 years.

LaunchBar versions 3 – 5 all looked just about like this:

LaunchBar 4

But today, the design is changing.

LaunchBar 6:

LaunchBar version 6

What’s New in LaunchBar 6?

Quite a bit, in fact. In short, LaunchBar looks better, has access to more items on your Mac (like iCloud tabs!), and you can now write and install custom workflows.

LaunchBar 6 is the first paid update to LaunchBar since 2010. If you’re a longtime LaunchBar user, the $19 upgrade price is well worth it. There’s also now a free version of LaunchBar, that gives you access to all the features, but has a limit on how frequently you can launch it.

The all-new look.

LaunchBar 6 Themes

Bigger font. Central location on the screen. It’s reminiscent of Alfred a bit (and even the new Spotlight coming in Yosemite), but yet it’s still very LaunchBar-y.

I like the new look quite a bit. Still has some of the things I like about LaunchBar, but with some cool things from Alfred brought over.

And there are themes: Bright, Dark, Default, Frosty, and Small. The “Small” theme is the previous LaunchBar design seen in version 5. I personally like the “Frosty” theme — it has an iOS 7- (and now Yosemite-)esque transparency to it. You can also customize your own theme if you want, though it’s a hack.

Actions, Extensions, and Workflows

LaunchBar has always come with some clever actions built in. For example, you can create a TinyURL link, send a tweet, eject any and all ejectable volumes that are mounted to your Mac, have Mail refresh in the background, upload images to Flickr, and more.

Many of these actions and workflows are things which OS X already handles, and LaunchBar just makes it easier to get to. And they aren’t necessarily all actions that do something, but also can serve as quick access to various things.

For example, there is an action that lets you browse the list of all currently open Safari tabs. So, say you want to email or tweet a link to one of the 41 tabs that you know you have open. You don’t have to navigate to Safari and peruse through all the tabs to find the one — you can use LaunchBar to scroll through your list of currently open Safari tabs, find the one you want and then act on that URL (which means you could convert it to a short URL, you could use it as the body text for composing a new email, you could tweet it out, you could simply copy it to the clipboard, etc.).

LaunchBar 6 is more flexible when it comes to the ability for users to create their own workflows and custom actions. Not only can you create Automator Workflows that interact with LaunchBar (receiving input, sending back results, etc.), but you can also write your own custom actions.

There is a documentation page on the Objective Development website which gives more details about how to write LaunchBar Actions.

I’ve been using the new LaunchBar for 10 weeks now, and I’ve yet to create a single custom action of my own that I didn’t already have in my previous versions of the app (such as a my custom Pinboard and Amazon searches). For one, I’m not a very good scripting programmer so I don’t even really know where to start. And perhaps I’m just not imaginative enough to think up ways my computing time would benefit from a custom action.

Because from where I’m sitting, all the built-in actions are pretty great already.

On Twitter, I asked any Alfred users to share what their must-have custom workflows were. Many answers were for things that LaunchBar already does out of the box: toggling Bluetooth, sending a tweet, doing a custom search on a website, adding a new task to Reminders, creating a new calendar event, and more.

One big difference between LaunchBar’s custom actions and Alfred’s is that with the latter you can assign a global hotkey to execute the action. But I use Keyboard Maestro to run all the custom scripts and macros that I want to be hotkey executable (such as this one which will take the current Safari tab and open it in Chrome).

Usage Reports

LaunchBar now keeps track of how often you open the Bar, what actions you perform, and how much time you’re saving. You can view your usage report by bringing up LaunchBar and hitting Opt+Cmd+U (or click the gear and click on Usage).

Live Search Results

You know how in Google when you’re typing in a search, the suggestions auto populate? That now happens in LaunchBar as well. It works with Google, Wikipedia, and a few others. Plus you can create your own custom live searches via LaunchBar Actions.

Emoji

LaunchBar 6 Emoji

Your emails, iMessages, and whatever else just got ten times more fancy with quick access to Emoji from within LaunchBar. Just type in “Emoji” and drill down. (Hi, Casey!)

Better iCloud Calendar and Reminders Integration

You can create iCloud reminders and calendar events from within the app.

If you use reminders often, you can set up a shortcut to the specific iCloud Reminders list that you use most often to bring that one up right away. And because you can send text and things into LaunchBar, you could easily create reminders from selected text or URLs, etc.

You can also toggle which reminder lists and which calendars are indexable if you have some misc lists that you don’t use.

Unfortunately, using natural language for assigning dates and times to a reminder (such as: “take out the trash tomorrow at 2pm”) doesn’t translate to applying that specified time to the reminder (a limitation of Reminders, not LaunchBar). However, you can assign dates and times using the @ symbol and direct time stamps (with the date going before the time).

LaunchBar Reminders integration

As you can see in the above screenshot, how the reminder (or meeting) info is parsed is displayed within LaunchBar’s columns. The text of the reminder is “call mom” the calendar date is this coming Friday, June 13, and the time for the reminder is 5:30pm.

Using LaunchBar to create reminders isn’t bad, but Fantastical’s support for Reminders is a bit better because Fantastical has a superior natural language parser.

In addition to creating reminders, you can also view all the reminders in your list and even mark them as completed from within LaunchBar.

LaunchBar Completed Reminders

In short, LaunchBar now operates as a full-fledged iCloud Reminders client. Not bad if you prefer to use Apple’s Reminders app, but wish there was a better form of quick entry from the Mac.

Aside: thoughts on Application Launchers and their relationship with other apps and services

So long as we’re talking about how you can use LaunchBar to create calendar events and reminders, it brings up a question of just how integrated we want our application launcher to be with our other apps?

For example, LaunchBar has a “Send to OmniFocus Inbox” action that will take whatever bit of text, file, URL, or the like that you’ve sent in to LaunchBar and then create a new task in OmniFocus with that item. It’s quite clever and helpful, but it’s also the same functionality as the OmniFocus’s built-in Clipper.

You can also add Fantastical events with LaunchBar, control iTunes, refresh Mail, and more. The list goes on for how LaunchBar (and Alfred) integrate with other apps.

But there are many times where I prefer to use the native integration of my apps. There are pros and cons to both sides of the argument, of course. Take Fantastical for example: if you use LaunchBar to send an event to Fantastical then the advantage is that you only need to remember your LaunchBar shortcut key. Evoke the app, get Fantastical selected, hit space and type your calendar entry, then launch that text in to Fantastical and finalize the new event. But, I prefer the way Fantastical works when entering a new event. And so that means I have to remember my keyboard shortcut for launching Fantastical.

The advantage of using an application launcher as your central repository for anything and everything is that there is less to remember. However, the integration with the various apps and services is not always as polished compared to the native input methods built in to those apps themselves.

LaunchBar Tips

With an app that can do so much, sometimes it’s tough to know where to start. Here are a few tips for things I do.

  • Quick Send: If you hold Command+Space while there’s an item that is selected in the Finder or text that is selected in an app, then that item will be “sent” to LaunchBar and you can then act on it.

    For example, if I need to crop and resize an image in Photoshop, I’ll navigate to that image in the Finder, then hold Command+Space to bring up LaunchBar with the item selected.

    LaunchBar Instant Send

    Do you see the orange block arrow icon? That means LaunchBar is ready to act on that item, and whatever I type next is the action LaunchBar will take on the selected item. Typing “photoshop” will then give me the option to open that image in Photoshop. I hit Enter and off we go.

    I could type “flickr” instead and then be given the option to upload the image to Flickr, via OS X’s system level service.

  • Getting a contact’s address / email / phone number: When you’ve brought up LaunchBar, search for a contact’s name. Then, hit the right arrow key and you have access to their address card fields. From their you can select their phone number or email for copy and pasting into whatever application you’re working in. Great for when someone emails you asking for the contact info of a mutual friend, or a business contact. Or heck, if someone is on the other side of the room and asks for a phone number, you can display it in large type on your 27-inch monitor because why not?

  • Navigating and acting on recent documents in apps: No only can you use LaunchBar to launch any app on your computer, but LaunchBar also has visibility into the documents that you’ve recently had open in that app.

    So, say you want to open that spreadsheet again. Bring up LaunchBar and get Numbers selected. Then, tap the right arrow and you can drill down to see all the recent documents. And from there you have far more options than just to open them — you can tag them with a color, attach them to a new email message, preview them in QuickLook, and more.

  • Clipboard history: It boggles my mind that OS X doesn’t have some sort of clipboard history by default. Once you’ve used an app that manages and tracks your clipboard history you’ll wonder how you ever got by without it. The fact that now, Copy/Cut is not a potentially destructive action.

    To access your clipboard history in LaunchBar go to the Preferences → Clipboard. Make sure that “Show clipboard history” is selected, and set a hotkey for it. I use Opt+Cmd+\.

  • Creating custom abbreviations: If old habits die hard, you can create your own custom abbreviations, such as “ical” for the Calendar app. To do this just get the app, bookmark, file, whatever that you want as the selection in LaunchBar. Then click on the item (you’ll see the “open” menu when your mouse hovers over), down towards the bottom of the popup menu you’ll see an option to Assign abbreviation.

  • Creating custom searches: you can set up custom searches on Amazon, Pinboard, Giphy, your own website, etc. All you need to know is how the search term interacts with the website in the URL.

    Here’s how: Bring up LaunchBar and click the Gear icon in the right side of the Bar. Go to Index → Show Index. Then go to Web → Search Templates. Create a new one for the website you want, and simply put an asterisk to serve as LaunchBar’s wild card to know where you want the search result to show up.

    For example, this will launch a search on Amazon:

    http://www.amazon.com/s/&field-keywords=*

    This will launch a search on Giphy:

    http://giphy.com/search/*

    To use your custom search, just bring up LaunchBar and type the initials for the search you want. When you have it selected, hit space and a text box will show up. Then type your search into the field and hit enter. LaunchBar will send you to that URL. Magic.

    LaunchBar also has a ton of pre-built search templates, such as for the iTunes store, Mac App store, Google, Dictionary, Wikipedia, and more.

Additional resources

The Take Control of LaunchBar book has a ton of information, though it’s not yet updated for LaunchBar 6.

And Macworld has several articles with tips and tricks: here, here, and here.

Longstanding Mac Apps

My grandpa was a teacher by trade and a woodworker by passion. My grandmother never did get to park their car in the garage because it was my grandpa’s wood shop.

In my garage are a few tools handed down to me from my Grandpa. Here’s a photo of a few of the more sentimental items I’ve been given: a level and a hand plane.

Tools

The level is least 50 or 60 years old — it has my great grandfather’s initials carved on it. And the plane is probably as old as I am.

I am also a woodworker by passion, but not nearly to the extent my grandpa was. I enjoy building tables and benches on the weekends as a way to give my mind and hands a change of pace from the pixel-based work I do the rest of the week.

The tools of my trade are digital.

A lot has changed in the personal computing industry since 1985. For me, the first computer I ever called my own was a Dell laptop back in 2000. Aside from my Yahoo ID and my AOL AIM account,1 I am not using any of the apps or services that I began using back in 2000.

Sometimes I wonder if the software I’m using today will still be around 20 or 30 years from now. If I put a reminder into OmniFocus to renew my passport in 2024, will that to-do item be preserved until the time it’s due?

For equal parts fun and research, I was digging around to see what Mac apps have been around for the past couple of decades and which are still relevant and under active development.

Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

  • Microsoft Word: 1985 (It’s fun to think that the most popular longstanding 3rd-party Mac app might be Microsoft Word, hu?)

  • Microsoft Excel: 1985 (Fun fact: did you know that Excel first shipped on the Mac? It didn’t come to Windows until 1987.)

  • Adobe Illustrator: 1986

  • Fetch: 1989

  • Adobe Photoshop: 1990

  • Accordance Bible: 1990

  • Pro Tools: 1991 (Fun fact: did you know when Pro Tools first launched it cost $6,000, and that “Livin la Vida Loca” was the first number 1 single to be recorded, edited, and mixed entirely in Pro Tools?)

  • BBEdit: 1992 (Fun fact: did you know BBEdit was free when it first came out?)

  • LaunchBar: 1995 (Fun fact: did you know LaunchBar is the original application launcher, and the first app to ever use the Command+Space keyboard hotkey?)

  • Transmit: 1998 (Fun fact: did you know Transmit originally was named “Transit” but there was another app by that name, so Panic changed the name of their app.)

I’m sure there are more. Though I’m not trying to make this list exhaustive, if you know of any apps that should be on this list let me know on Twitter. I’m @shawnblanc.


  1. Which I need for Flickr and AIM respectively. Though iMessage has largely usurped AIM over the past year or so.

Awesome

This is a great year to be an Apple software nerd.

For one, there have been, and are coming, some awesome updates to many great 3rd-party apps, such as Reeder 2, OmniFocus 2, LaunchBar 6, and Things 3 to name a few.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

What Apple announced yesterday is nothing short of an epic leap forward for Mac and iOS software. And it’s manifested in the new visual identity of OS X, Continuity between Macs and iOS devices, extensibility within iOS, iCloud Drive and Photo storage, and a hundred other improvements to Mail, Safari, Spotlight, Messages, and more… these things are the foundation of iOS and OS X for the next 5 years.

Moreover, Apple released a brand new programming language, Swift, that will make writing native Mac and iOS apps even easier. When I asked yesterday on Twitter what everyone’s favorite thing announced at WWDC was, the overwhelming response was Swift.

Now, I love to geek out over new hardware much as anybody. But without an operating system and without apps, an iPhone is just a beautiful piece of glass and aluminum — a shell. It’s the software that gives our gadgets their life and personality.

* * *

Yesterday’s keynote was just fantastic. If you haven’t watched it yet, you must. Download the HD version, make some popcorn, and enjoy. This was Apple at its best. The show was fast-paced, enjoyable, and downright funny. And Craig Federighi? The dude was on fire.

All day yesterday, the prevailing question amongst the friends and people I was hanging out with was: “So, what did you think of the keynote?”

Everyone’s answer was pretty much the same: Excitement.

For those of us who use our Macs and iOS devices day in and day out for both work and for play, we have a lot to look forward to. The new features and designs announced yesterday promise to make our digital tools and workflows more fun, more efficient, and, more delightful.

Here are my thoughts and observations (so far) about just a few of the things announced at yesterday’s WWDC 2014 keynote.

OS X Yosemite

Yosemite strikes me as an update to OS X that’s done, in part, at least, as a labor of love. An update to the Mac OS that’s shipping not because Apple has to, but because they want to. It’s not an update to keep up with the times and to have some features checked off the checklist. But rather an update that’s driven by a company that sweats the details and takes great delight in shipping beautiful, delightful software.

The Design

The design is, of course, the most significant change to OS X. We all saw the writing on the wall last year when Apple introduced iOS 7, and now it’s here: OS X is going “flat”.

If you want to get a taste of how the new UI will look on your Mac, here’s a couple of high-res images from Apple’s site. Just save these to your Mac, open one in Preview, and then go Full Screen: The Calendar; Multiple Windows Open; Safari Tabs View; Spotlight.

Aside from the change of window chrome, you can also see there are all sorts of new design changes throughout the entire operating system. Such as new glyphs, new Finder folder icons, a new system font (Helvetica Neue), new system icons, a return to the 2D dock (yay!), and a “consolidating” of the in app title bar so app buttons now sit on the same top row as the stoplight.

The other big system changes include the implementation of a Today view in Notification Center with customizable widgets, and the massive overhaul of Spotlight.

I haven’t yet installed the developer beta onto a USB drive, so I don’t know what Yosemite is like in actual use. But my initial reaction is a good one. Not only am I excited about all the new features and functionality, but the new design looks mostly great to me. I am genuinely looking forward to using this new UI for all the work and play I do from my Mac.

Spotlight

App launchers such as Alfred and LaunchBar are just so great. Like many of you, I’m sure, I’ve been using an application launcher for nearly as long as I’ve been using my Mac. I used Quicksilver for years and when it stopped working on Snow Leopard, I switched to LaunchBar.

I don’t think the new Spotlight is going to sherlock Alfred or LaunchBar. There is so much you can do with Alfred or LaunchBar that you can’t do with the new Spotlight, such as access to clipboard history, building custom workflows, assigning global hotkeys, and more. For many people, myself included, a more powerful application launcher will still be their preference.

But for many others, this new, more powerful version of Spotlight will be their first step into the awesome world of intelligent and awesome application launchers. And that’s great.

Also, the new Spotlight shows Apple’s step towards capturing more of the search market. Meaning, when you are looking for something, Apple wants you to start with Spotlight no matter what you’re looking for.

It used to be that Spotlight only searched the indexed contents of your computer’s hard drive. And if you wanted to search for a movie or app you’d open up iTunes. If you wanted to search for information, you’d open up Safari and go to Google. If you wanted to search for a location, you’d open up Maps. But now, all those sources (and more?) have a single starting point: Spotlight.

iCloud Storage

  1. For one, it’s cheaper. The free tier is still at 5GB, but you can get 20GB for $12 / year and 200GB for $48 / year. While I would have loved to see the free tier bumped up to something more substantial, the pricing for the paid tiers is incredibly competitive. I currently pay $40 / year for the 25GB tier. a few more bucks and I can get 8x the storage.

  2. Secondly, it looks like Apple’s answer to Dropbox. Which means the new iCloud Storage and Finder integration could be massive. But it’s too early to tell. iCloud, Mobile Me, and .Mac all have a reputation for not being the most reliable services. If, however, iCloud Finder storage could prove itself to be as useful and reliable as Dropbox, I’d go all-in with it in a heartbeat. Time will tell on this one.

iOS 8

On the iOS 8 website, Apple has outlined many of the hallmark features of the new OS. Here are a few thoughts and observations of my own, regarding some of the things that stand out to me the most and are the most exciting to me.

Messages App

At a keynote like Apple’s, there are three types of reactions to the individual product and feature demos:

  1. Feeling impartial and/or ambivalent to what’s being announced.
  2. Feeling impressed about how cool such-and-such product is.
  3. Feeling legitimately excited because you immediately can see yourself using the new product and it making your life better / easier / etc.

Watching Craig Federighi demo the new features of the iOS Messages, I was not only impressed about how cool it was, but I could instantly see myself using it in real life every day. I communicate with my close friends and family every day almost exclusively through the Messages app. The improvements to group threads, the audio message sharing, and more are all awesome additions that I can’t wait for all my iPhone using friends and family to have access to.

I love that Apple put so much work and improvements into an app that we all use more than any other on our phones. I keep the Messages app in my Dock, but the phone app is literally on another Home screen.

Additional thoughts / notes about Messages:

  • The voice chatting stuff could be a huge win for CarPlay and even just for “messaging” while driving. While using Siri in the car is a pretty good alternative to texting (which is flat out something you should never be doing, period), it’s still awkward and not always accurate. The way the voice messaging works (with auto play and respond available right from the Lock screen) could be significantly safer and easier to use.
  • I love that the videos and photos and audio self-destruct after time to save room on the phone.
  • Looks like the audio files are in the AMR codec.

QuickType + Actionable Notifications

From time to time I have used Android phones and tablets. There are many things about Android that I like, and by far and away the two things I most wish for on iOS are Android’s predictive text keyboard and a better Notification Center. Well, with iOS 8 we’re getting both of those.

  • QuickType: If you haven’t used predictive text typing, it looks like it’d be awkward and slow. But in my experience using it, it’s actually much faster and easier. I am very much looking forward to the new keyboard options and features.

    Moreover, I’m interested to see how the “artificial intelligence” will pan out in day-to-day use. There are some instances where QuickType doesn’t just suggest the word it thinks you’re trying to type, it will literally suggest a word or phrase before you’ve even tapped the first keystroke.

  • And the actionable notifications will be great for saving time. No longer will we have to act like animals, unlocking our phones and launching the messages app to reply to a single text message.

Family Sharing

In some respects, the new Family Sharing features are just a bundled up version of what’s alway been available. But it’s easier to set up and there are some new features.

The feature that I’m most excited about is the automatic shared photo stream album. This was something I loved about using Everpix (before it bit the dust) — I put my phone and my wife’s phone onto the same account and we automatically had shared access to all the photos we each were taking. It was great! Well, now that’s set up in iOS 8:

Family Sharing makes collecting and sharing family memories easier and more fun. It automatically sets up a family photo stream where you can share photos, videos, and comments. And everything stays up to date on everyone’s devices. So you’re all a tap away from the latest vacation shots, birthday highlights, and family pranks.

Extensions

This is huge. But that’s all I know to say about it.

I don’t currently have any long-winded thoughts and opinions about the nitty-gritty implications of precisely how Extensions will change the way we use iOS, and I think that’s the point. We don’t know what sort of awesomeness and convenience and functionality this new inter-app communication will make available. But I know it’s huge because I think Extensions are the foundation for the next 5 years of iOS growth and maturity. Apple themselves can only expand and mature the OS so much; and eventually it will require the contributions and ideas of 3rd-party developers to take it to the next level. Extensions finally opens the door for that.

It will no doubt take a year or two for extensions to become prevalent and mainstream. And then in another year or two years we’ll wonder how we ever lived without them.

Continuity

Continuity looks awesome. It’s a way for the user to start a task on one device and move to another device and pick up right where they left off.

In some ways, “Continuity” already exists. In that, many of our documents and media usage are already in sync between our devices. For example: iCloud Mail drafts are synced; iCloud syncs Safari tabs; Pages documents stored in iCloud are available on any device with Pages; Rdio lets you take over the currently-playing song from one device to another; Pocket Casts syncs play location for your podcast episodes; you can send a location or directions from Maps on the Mac to your iOS device; and more.

However, with Continuity, the point is to make it easier to pick up right where you left off in the very moment you are doing the work. Such as when you want to switch from reading a website on your Mac to your iPad right this moment. In that scenario, there is no more need to unlock your iPad, open Safari, wait a minute or two for iCloud to sync, navigate to your list of iCloud tabs that are open on your Mac, and then open the webpage on your iPad. However, with Continuity you just swipe up on the bottom-left icon and boom.

So in some respects, Continuity is not necessarily a new feature. Rather, it just removes a layer of work. Getting to your same iCloud tab is one swipe away instead of many swipes and taps.

But I think Continuity is more than just a better implementation of a cool feature. I see it as a “philosophical” feature as well — it’s a statement that we use our devices for many of the same tasks, and that “work” is device agnostic. Continuity is a way of telling the Apple user it’s okay to expect their devices to always be in sync down to the very mid-sentence of an email in progress.

In Closing

Everything from yesterday’s event comes together to give us a glimpse into the current Apple culture:

  • There was the overall confident and playful sentiment we saw from Tim Cook, Craig Federighi, and the other presenters.
  • There is the gorgeous, ground-up redesign of OS X.
  • There is the plethora of amazing new features in the apps we use every day.
  • And there is Swift, the new programming language that practically has Mac and iOS developers dancing in the streets.

A cynical onlooker would see these things and say it’s what Apple has to do lest it be doomed. They would say the fun and joyful announcements on stage were an act, and the new features are just a desperate attempt to cover the fact Apple hasn’t yet shipped any brand-new revolutionary hardware gadgets in 2014.

However, the optimistic onlooker would see the Keynote for what it actually is: a glimpse into the culture of Apple in 2014. And that culture is one of excitement, ambition, generosity, confidence, and momentum. We are seeing what the post Steve Jobs Apple is like, and my friends, it is awesome.

A Review of OmniFocus 2 for Mac

Here is a dorky chart showing what I call The “Spectrum of ‘GTD workflow’ Tools”:

The Spectrum of GTD Workflow Tools

Click for full-size

What does it mean?

Basic task-management tools shine with short term tasks and goals. They are simple and have no learning curve. However, they can strain under the weight of too many tasks, long-term projects, tasks which are not yet relevant until several months from now, or tasks which need additional layers of information beyond the action item itself.

It’s because of these “shortcomings” of basic tools that more complex tools exist. The complex options excel at managing detailed and long-term projects, tasks with due dates in the far future, and action items with multiple bits of additional information.

However, the complex tools have a trade-off as well. They take time to learn, they beg us to input as much information as possible for every action item thus requiring an extra step or two (or five) when creating a new task, and it can sometimes feel like we’re spending more time managing our task system then actually doing our tasks.

And that’s why in-between the basic and complex tools are those that support a basic structure of projects and lists (and perhaps even due dates with reminders), but which don’t allow or require additional layers of information.

Somewhere along this spectrum is a tool and system that works for you.

Using too basic of a workflow tool when your circumstances require a complex one will cause unnecessary mental friction and will lead to wasted time and forgotten tasks. But using a too-complex tool when your circumstances don’t require it can lead to unnecessary management of and tinkering with your workflow and tools.

There is no single right or wrong solution here. Some of us use a certain tool for task management because our circumstances require it, and some of us a certain tool because our personality prefers it. There are also those who use a non-ideal tool because they don’t know a better option exists (or because they are too stubborn/lazy to seek out and learn the proper tool).

If you can: find a tool that makes sense to you.

Your tools should always be available to you when you want to use them for adding or completing tasks; it should be as easy and fun to use as possible for a tool like this; and it should support a system that you trust with your tasks and projects, that way you’ll be predisposed to continue using it without weighing the other options every other week.

Factors that I think are important but which should not be the ultimate deciding factors include the cost, the learning curve, and the trendiness. No doubt, for many of you reading this, the system you use to get things done is the backbone of your day-to-day work. Choosing the inexpensive shortcut may save as much as $200 and a few weeks of learning the ropes, but it may also mean taking on a long-term handicap related to your productivity. I’m not saying to go buy the most expensive software out there, but I am asking that you consider your needs and give yourself permission to invest in the best tools available that will aid you in the activities you do every single day.

My tool of choice is OmniFocus

I’ve read David Allen’s book, and I totally get it. I love it. His whole philosophy for getting things done, staying organized, and getting our task management systems out of our heads and into some other system all makes a lot of sense to me. The parking lot, the reviews, it clicks with how my brain works.

And so, yes, my own system of productivity is theoretically similar to what Allen lays out in his book. Except that my practice of “GTD” seems so very sloppy.

For the past 4 years I’ve used OmniFocus as my task-management system. Like a good wallet, OmniFocus has held together the crazy and necessary bits of my life through all sorts of seasons. From my time as a creative director managing a team of 17, to my transition as a self-employed full-time blogger, through dozens of business trips and vacations, through two kids, innumerable projects around the house, and so, so, so much more.

I’ve got a lot of crap in OmniFocus, to be honest. Like I said, my GTD system is sloppy — I don’t keep my task-management software neat and tidy because I don’t care that much. I don’t have perfectly formatted lists with thought-through start and due dates, proper contexts, accurate time estimations, or anything else. And yes, I’ll admit that I don’t always start my tasks with a verb (call, ask, go to, pick up, fall over, etc.). Also, I’m very bad at regularly reviewing all my active projects.

If I did all these things well, OmniFocus would be an ideal tool. It is SO GREAT at managing all the crazy metadata that goes along with a finely-tuned productivity workflow.

But in my years of using this app, I’ve found that it’s also great at managing my more sloppy and unorganized style of “productivity workflow.”

OmniFocus is awesome at letting me be messy and disorganized with my tasks. Because the truth is, I’d rather just be doing stuff — like writing, reading, or (ideally) sitting outside in my hammock drinking some lemonade — instead of going through all my active projects and dusting my someday-maybe list.

I’m not an OmniFocus ninja, and I don’t spend a lot of time fiddling and tweaking my software. But I have been using OmniFocus long enough to know what it’s capable of, how to use it best for my needs, to know that I still have room for improvement with how I use it, but still trust that it can handle whatever I can throw at it.

I know OmniFocus can conform to my needs, I trust it with my tasks, and based on how I use the app and how I manage my tasks and projects, I know that when something important is due, OmniFocus will let me know. Once I’ve put something into the app, I let it go. And that is worth the price of this software times ten.

How I use each version of OmniFocus

OmniFocus is a 3-app suite: iPhone, iPad, and Mac. I use all three apps daily. Here’s how:

iPhone

I predominately use the iPhone for two things: (1) quick capture of a new task, and (2) checking items off a list when out and about (such as errands, shopping, etc.)

The iPhone version of OmniFocus is my least favorite of the three apps. And, unfortunately, it’s my least favorite because it handles one of its most important functions very poorly: quick entry.

So say I’m standing in line at Chipotle and I suddenly think of an excellent topic I want to add to my upcoming book, and I want to work on it tomorrow morning during my writing time.

Here’s the steps necessary: (1) unlock iPhone; (2) launch OmniFocus; (3) tap the Quick Entry button on the bottom right; (4) enter task name: “Add cool new section to the book”; (5) tap the Project picker; (6) type in the first few letters of the name of the project; (7) tap the name of the project; (8) tap the Due date picker; (9) tap the “+1 Day” button to set the task to be due tomorrow; (10) tap “Save”.

If you don’t include the time it takes to pull my iPhone out of my pocket and unlock it, then the time it takes to enter in this “quick” entry takes about 30 seconds. Not an incredibly long time, but it’s not an easy 30 seconds.

I could just toss the task into my OmniFocus inbox and save myself half of those steps, but why would I do that when I already know the project and due date for this task? Ignoring that data is simply putting it off to a later time.

In a nut, my quibble with the iPhone is that the new task entry page does not have a clearly defined hierarchy. Thus, even after 9 months of using it every day, I’m still not familiar with the new task entry layout.

iPad

I use the iPad mostly for doing my reviews and scrubbing my daily list of things to do. The iPad version of OmniFocus was my favorite, but it’s now tied with the Mac because the new Mac version is so great.

Every morning, I scrub my to-do list by looking at what’s due today and what’s available to be done in the projects I’m excited about working on today. I start by writing down my “Big Three” tasks I want to get done (these are sometimes important tasks that are due, but they’re often part of the projects I have motivation to keep working on). These “Big Three” are how I’ll define success for my work day, and it’s what gives me the primary direction for what to work on once I sit down at my keyboard.

I also have a bit of admin and email time as part of my day, and so I use OmniFocus to tell me what specifics I’ll be working on during the day.

I then move that day’s tasks to paper and map out a rough timeline for when I plan to tackle the big tasks and when I plan to wrap up my day.

The Morning To-Do List Scrub

Mac

Since I work from my Mac for hours a day, I use OmniFocus here quite a bit. It’s almost always running because I send a lot of tasks into OmniFocus using the Quick Entry popup, and during my times in the day when I work through some of my “Admin” context tasks, I reference OmniFocus for what needs to be done.

And with that, let’s talk about the new version of OmniFocus for Mac.

New and Improved: OmniFocus 2 for Mac

It’s brand new, and here’s what’s most awesome:

  1. Gorgeous new design — finally.
  2. Forecast view — straight out of the iPad app.
  3. Much improved Review mode — also from the iPad.
  4. Quick Open — a way to jump to a specific perspective, project, context, or folder without leaving your keyboard.

There’s more, of course, but these are the new elements of OmniFocus 2 for Mac that I personally am most excited about.

The Design of OmniFocus 2 for Mac

Form follows function. Design isn’t just how it looks, design is also how it works. Etcetera. Well, OmniFocus 1 had the function — it worked great — but form? Not so much.

Fortunately, you could tweak the colors, typefaces, and spacing of the original OmniFocus. Myself, and others, had our own neat themes to improve slightly on the default design of the app. I felt my theme helped give some much-needed space to the app, but it never felt great.

Which is why there’s no contest about what the biggest update to the new version of OmniFocus is: the design.

For me, the complete visual overhaul of the app is reminiscent of getting my first Nintendo for Christmas — I wanted it so badly for so long and I cannot believe it actually happened. Yes!

A Visual History of OmniFocus

I’ve written about OF’s visual history before and I’d like to do so again. Not only do I think it’s interesting and fascinating, I think taking a look at how far the app has come gives some context and appreciation for the current state of the app as well as it being a brief study in user interface design.

OmniFocus’s roots are as an add-on to OmniOutliner Pro called Kinkless (kGTD), which was built and developed by Ethan Schoonover. Though it was incredibly brilliant, kGTD was also a hack. It was a bunch of AppleScripts that ran on a single OmniOutliner document to bring it certain features. It also had some custom buttons and even some Quicksilver actions for quick entry.

Here is what Kinkless GTD looked like (circa 2006):

Khoi Vihn's Kinkless GTD Setup

In 2006, Omni Group asked Schoonover, along with Merlin Mann, to help take the ideas and functions of kGTD and turn them into an official Omni task-management application.

Here’s the first publicly displayed mockup, showing what OmniFocus could have looked like:

Original OmniFocus UI Mockup

After more than a year of private development with a group of about 500 alpha users, OmniFocus went into public beta in November 2007, and in January 2008, OmniFocus 1.0 was released.

OmniFocus 1.0 (circa January 2008):

OmniFocus Version 1.0

OmniFocus 1.10 (circa yesterday, May 21, 2014) :

OmniFocus User Interface, version 1.10

As you can see, not much in the UI has changed from the original Kinkless implementation of 2005 to what OmniFocus is today in 2014.

But all that began to change with the first beta of OmniFocus for Mac 2.

Little over a year ago, on February 1, 2013, the beta of OmniFocus 2 for the Mac was introduced.

Beta 1 of OmniFocus 2 (circa Feb 2013):

Beta 1 of OmniFocus 2 for Mac

Beta 1 of OmniFocus 2 for Mac

However, during the beta testing process, the Omni Group realized they needed to go back to the drawing board, and in June 2013 they pressed pause on the public beta.

During that 5-month testing window in 2013, I gave the beta 1 a good college try but kept drifting back to my original version of OmniFocus that I’d been using for the past 4 years. In short, I never felt all that comfortable navigating that OmniFocus beta. It felt more like a fancy new theme for the Mac app and not a significant improvement of the app’s primary functionality.

Omni Group’s time at the drawing board paid off, and a couple months ago they re-introduced the OmniFocus for Mac beta with a completely overhauled design.

And that awesome design is front and center of what is shipping today.

OmniFocus 2 for Mac (May 22, 2014):

Beta 2 of OmniFocus 2 for Mac

As you can see, there are quite a few noticeable changes between the beta 1 and beta 2 designs of the new OmniFocus for Mac.

For one, the left-aligned checkboxes have been swapped out with right-aligned checkcircles. The checkcircles are pretty cool, I think. For one, they’re a design cue from the iPhone app. But they’re also quite clever.

Technically, they’re called “Status Circles”. From the release notes:

Status Circles provide a colorful nexus of information about each task: is it overdue, flagged, complete, repeating?

Here’s a look at several of the various states of the status circle. (Note that all these items are due, and thus the circles are orange/red instead of grey.)

OmniFocus 2 for Mac - Status Circles

From top to bottom:

  • Red means it’s overdue
  • Orange means it’s due today
  • Grey with a check means it’s been completed
  • The blue background with blue stroke on the edge means that’s the currently selected task
  • The orange box hiding behind the circle is the click target to flag an item. It appears when the mouse is hovering over a task.
  • The little flag to the right means the task has been flagged. The top of the circle also turns a darker orange.
  • The three dots inside a circle mean it’s a repeating task.

The right alignment of the Status Circles is growing on me. At times they feel a bit annoying because when I’m in OmniFocus to check off a task I’ve just completed, I need to first scan the left margin to find the task and then use my mouse to follow that column over to the right in order to decipher which circle on the right-side corresponds with the task on the left. But, the more I use this app the more I like the Status Circles, and their clear portrayal of an action item’s status.

Moreover, by right-aligning the circles, they fit right in with the app’s overarching task hierarchy layout, which now has a clear structure that flows from left to right:

OmniFocus 2 - the left-to-right hierarchy

Click for full-size

  1. On the left-most side are the tabs for different views. Note also that these tabs sport “color bars” to indicate when they have “interesting” content, such as due or overdue actions in the Forecast Perspective, projects that need to be reviewed in the Review Perspective, or unfilled items in the Inbox. You can adjust which tabs can be highlighted in the Notifications panel in the app’s Preferences.

  2. Next to the Tabs column is the list of information relevant to the selected tab. If you’re in Forecast view then you’ll see a calendar, if you’re in the Projects view then you’ll see a list of all your projects, etc.

  3. Third is the main task list displaying the tasks themselves. Here you see only the to-do items for whichever project, context, or date you have selected.

    And here is why the right-alignment of the Status Circles makes sense. Because the status of a task (due, overdue, flagged, repeating, completed, available) is logically more granular than the task itself.

  4. And lastly, on the right-most pane is the task’s information panel where you can adjust all the detailed metadata related to that task if you so desire.

Every one of the design changes in OmniFocus 2 for Mac is an improvement on an app that has been desperate for a visual overhaul for years. The visual overhaul has been worth the wait.

Quick Open

Mash down on CMD+O and the “Quick Open” dialog box pops up.

OmniFocus 2 for mac - Quick Open

Type in the name of a project, folder, context, or perspective and it will auto-fill your text and give you live suggestions (just like you get when doing a Google search).

Quick Open

Quick Open is an easy and fast way to jump to any other section within OmniFocus. But I wish it were just a little bit more powerful…

Whither Universal Search?

My biggest gripe here is that I would love to see universal search. This has always bugged me in OmniFocus, and it was something I was hoping would make it into the new version. Alas, not yet.

When searching in OmniFocus you only see results (or lack thereof) based on the current view. Which means that if you are ever looking for a specific task, if it’s not in front of you already, you have to change OmniFocus’s perspective to one that will list out all your tasks in a giant list. Then you can search for that task and hopefully find it.

I would love to have a universal search that helps me find a task based on its title or note regardless of what my current view / perspective is.

Review and Forecast

The two greatest features of the iPad version are now with us on the Mac. As stated above, I now pretty much live in the Forecast view, and the review mode is just great — though I still prefer to do my reviews on the iPad. I’m glossing over these a bit here, because anyone who’s familiar with OmniFocus on the iPad or iPhone is already aware of how great and useful these two features are. Anyone new to OmniFocus entirely will get introduced to these features when first launching the app.

OmniFocus 2: Standard vs Pro

OmniFocus 2 for Mac now comes in two flavors: Standard and Pro. They cost $40 and $80 respectively (or upgrade for $20 / $40 respectively). All the information about upgrading can be found on the OmniFocus support site.

The biggest difference between the Standard and Pro version is that the latter has a few additional (and powerful) options for customization and adding your own “power features” for seeing and manipulating your tasks. But the core function of the database and everything else is there for everyone.

The Pro features are: (1) the ability to create custom perspectives and to place them in the sidebar; (2) a special Focus view with its own shortcut key that shows you only the currently due tasks within a certain project; and (3) AppleScript support.

From where I’m sitting, I think the Standard version of OmniFocus is probably going to be great for most people. If you don’t already know that you want the Pro features, then save some money (and fiddle-ability) and get the Standard version. While there are a lot of cool things people will tell you that you can do with custom perspectives and AppleScripts, how likely are you to utilize them?

Or, here’s another way to figure out if the Standard version is right for you: Do you almost exclusively use the default views and features in the iPad? If so, then the Standard version of the Mac app will suit you great.

However, that said, here’s a bit more information about what’s in the Pro version (and why I personally am upgrading to it):

  • Custom perspectives: They are nice, but I don’t find them nearly as necessary in OmniFocus 2 as I did in OmniFocus 1. In OF1 I used a custom “Today” perspective that only showed me items that are due (or overdue) today. But that perspective is moot in OF2 because I now live almost entirely in the Forecast view.

    What’s nice about a custom perspective is if you have a particular project or context that you often want to bring up. You can set a project / context as its own new perspective by going to the Perspectives menu → Add New Perspective. Then, when you click the star next to the perspective, it will show up in your OmniFocus sidebar.

    As always, you can set your own custom icons and images for your custom perspectives. I’d highly recommend checking out Jory’s Year of Icons and grab one of the PNGs to use as a custom icon. Unfortunately you cannot replace the default icons that OmniFocus ships with for Inbox, Projects, Contexts, Forecast, Flagged, and Review.

  • Focus on Folders and Projects: This is one feature I don’t utilize at all, but depending on how you have your projects and areas of responsibility organized, it could be a massive help.

    When you enable Focus mode (found under the View menu), OmniFocus hides any and all tasks and projects that aren’t part of the folder or project that you’re focusing on. And they’re not just hidden from the current view, they are hidden throughout the whole app as if they never existed.

    I was talking with Derek Reiff of the Omni Group about the Focus feature, and he shared with me how he uses it:

    Focus is about moving away everything you don’t currently need to see. I separate my tasks at the very top level by using two folders: Work and Home. When I’m at the Omni Group office, I enable Focus on the Work folder and every view or perspective I switch to from that point on will only show Work actions and projects. Then, when I go home, I enable Focus on the Home folder to hide all my Work-related actions and projects.

    If you keep the whole of your life’s tasks in OmniFocus — your job, your side hobby, your home projects, etc. — you just might love the Focus mode.

  • AppleScript Support: This is what compels me to upgrade to the Pro version of OmniFocus 2. I have a couple of AppleScripts that I use with OmniFocus on a regular basis, and it’s worth it for me to pay the additional cost of upgrade to continue to have access to them.

    Here are some links to those scripts, only the OopsieFocus script needed to be updated to work nicely with OmniFocus 2:

    • OopsieFocus: An AppleScript that launches OmniFocus and brings up the Quick Entry box for you on those times you hit the Quick Entry hotkey but realize that OmniFocus isn’t actually running.

      (If you’re using the Standard version of OmniFocus 2, this script can still launch OmniFocus, but it won’t be able to automatically bring up the Quick Entry box.)

    • Send all the Safari Tabs to OmniFocus (with this addition for adding a confirmation notification): This script grabs all the open tabs in Safari’s front-most window and creates a new to-do item in your OmniFocus Inbox with the Title and URL of each tab listed out within the task’s note.

    • Send current Safari Tab to OmniFocus: This isn’t an AppleScript, it’s a snippet of Javascript that’ll work with the Standard version of OmniFocus 2 (and it works in the iOS apps, too). All it does is bring up the Quick Entry box with the title of the website as the task name, and the URL of the website in the note.

Wrap up

This new version of OmniFocus is more feature-rich while also being cleaner, more organized, and more logical. The design brings a structured peacefulness to the wild animal that is my never-ending task list. And that’s quite a feat, because our to-dos are, by nature, neither structured nor peaceful.

You can get OmniFocus 2 on the Mac App Store, or direct from Omni Group’s website.

Recipe for Grilled Artichoke

Speaking of backyard cooking, here is one of my all-time favorite recipes: grilled artichokes with a vinegar cheese dipping sauce.

Artichokes are in season during the summer, and this recipe makes for an amazing appetizer, side, or even a whole meal if you want.

It’s surprisingly easy to do, and it’ll impress the heck out of your friends.

The Dipping Sauce

Ingredients:

  • 3T Mayo
  • 2T vinegar
  • 1T parmesan cheese
  • 2T chives
  • 2t golden mustard
  • Some dashes of parsley

Directions: Add vinegar and parmesan cheese and warm up in microwave to melt the cheese. Then add mayonnaise, mustard, chives, and parsley. Mix.

Butter marinade

Melt and mix 2T Butter with 1t salt and 1t ground pepper for each whole artichoke being cooked.

The Artichokes

  • One artichoke per 2 people is usually enough.

  • Fill a pot with enough water that all the artichokes can be submerged. I also will add a cup or two of chicken or vegetable broth.

  • Boil artichokes in water until the stem is tender enough that a butter knife placed into the top of the stem can easily pierce. (Takes about 45 minutes.)

  • Remove artichokes from water and cut them in half from top to bottom.

  • With a spoon, scoop out the Inner Petals and the Choke (basically all the parts that you don’t want to eat) from each half.

  • Spread the butter marinade onto the inside of the artichoke and get it in between as many of the petals as you can.

  • Place the artichoke halves onto a hot grill with the Heart facing down

  • Cook for 3-5 minutes (sear them; don’t burn to a crisp).

  • Flip over after a few minutes to sear the other side.

  • Add more butter marinade if you have any.

  • Once both sides have been cooked and have grill marks, remove from the grill.

  • Eat it by plucking a petal off at a time and dipping it into the sauce.

Fighting to Stay Creative

Having fun is an excellent way to do our best creative work.

But as anyone who writes or draws or takes pictures for a living will tell you, thinking and creating something awesome every day can be excruciatingly painful. Doing our best creative work day in and day out is difficult. Creative work wears on your mind and your emotions instead of on your joints and muscles. Not to mention the sheer horror involved in the act of taking something you’ve created and putting it out there in public in the hopes of making a dollar so you can make something else and put it out there again.

* * *

On Episode 5 of The Weekly Briefly, Patrick Rhone was my guest and we were sharing some bits of writing advice for people wanting to build a website audience. One of the foundational principals we both agreed on was the immeasurable importance of having fun, which is not as easy as it sounds. As I mentioned above, publishing your creative work to the internet for all the world to see is often a very not-fun thing to do.

Patrick said something that is an excellent guiding principal to help you keep your writing fun: write the internet that you want to read.

There is something freeing about creating for yourself. When we take hold of that baton and create for that second version of ourselves, it’s like having a permission slip to do awesome work. And what better way to have fun than to do awesome work? There’s an inverse truth here as well: most of our best work comes from the place of delight. When we are excited about a project, that creative momentum propels us to think outside the box and to dream new ideas as the project takes residence as the top idea in our mind.

Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin and Hobbes, would agree. Here’s an excerpt from a speech he gave in 1990 at the Kenyon College commencement ceremony:

If I’ve learned one thing from being a cartoonist, it’s how important playing is to creativity and happiness. My job is essentially to come up with 365 ideas a year. If you ever want to find out just how uninteresting you really are, get a job where the quality and frequency of your thoughts determine your livelihood. I’ve found that the only way I can keep writing every day, year after year, is to let my mind wander into new territories. To do that, I’ve had to cultivate a kind of mental playfulness.

And here’s James Altucher in a Facebook status update about how to write for a living:

The most important thing for me: writing without fear. Writing without judgment. Writing without anger. Making writing fun. Writing right now. Writing is about freedom and not money.

Now, as you probably know all too well, in practice it’s not that easy. But you and I are not alone in our fight to stay creative. We can (and we should!) set ourselves up for success. By identifying the things that suffocate fun and creativity, as well as knowing the things that encourage creativity, we can wage war against the former and cultivate the latter.

Let’s start with the bad news first.

Stiflers of creativity

Below, I’ve listed the things that will cut off our ability and/or desire to do our best creative work. These are things that will whisper in our ear that our idea is pathetic and our implementation of it even worse. They urge us to give up, to move on, to quit, and to pacify our minds. They tell us that we have nothing unique to offer, that we have no value, and that everything will come crashing down any minute, so why even bother.

  • Isolation: Being alone from any community, any peer group, and anybody who you can bounce ideas off of, get feedback from, and just other general human contact that reminds you of the fact you’re a real human being.

  • Ambiguity: Having unknown goals and trying to complete them in an undefined manner with a hazy schedule. Without clear goals, an action plan to accomplish them, and a schedule for when we are going to work, then we just meander around not actually doing anything.

  • Fear & anxiety: This includes fear of failure, fear of rejection. It can paralyze us from even getting started on our ideas because we fear it will come to nothing in the end anyway. Or we fear that when we are finished, people will reject our work and reject us as the author behind it. The problem here is that it puts all the value on the end result only, and places no value at all in the journey of the creative process itself. There is nothing wrong with failure and rejection — we can learn so much from those things! And there is no shortcut for experience. We mustn’t be afraid of failing nor of being rejected, and we must place more value on the act of creating so we can find joy in the journey and develop a lifetime of experience in making things.

  • Shame: Feeling inadequate as an artist at all, embarrassed about the work we’ve done, even embarrassed about the future work we haven’t even done yet. When we feel shame, we shy away from our big bold ideas and the result is a self-fulfilling prophecy and we make something completely devoid of life and opinion.

  • Doubt: Doubting that we have the skills to make anything at all; doubting our value as a creative person.

  • Comparison: There is a difference between learning and gleaning from others and comparing our work to theirs. Where there is comparison there is often envy as well. And this deadly pair will choke out any originality we have. Ray Bradbury, from his Martian Chronicles introduction, wrote: “I did what most writers do at their beginnings: emulated my elders, imitated my peers, thus turning away from any possibility of discovering truths beneath my skin and behind my eyes.”

  • Disillusionment: This is “a feeling of disappointment resulting from the discovery that something is not as good as one believed it to be.” We can get disillusioned in a million ways, and often the result is a loss of vision for doing our creative work. I avoid disillusionment by steering clear of the things and the people that represent what I consider the “worst” things of my areas of interest and work.

When we live with these stiflers of creativity as a permanent ailment for too long, it can lead to burn out. The solution isn’t to quit our creative endeavors altogether, but rather to get rid of the ailment. I will say, however, that quitting (or taking a sabbatical) works sometimes because when you fully remove yourself from the situation you have a chance to deal with the ailment in a new environment.

Identify these enemies in your creative life and wage war against them. Give yourself permission to do what it takes to set yourself up to do the best creative work you can do. Quit Twitter. Move to Atlanta. Only write and publish after 9pm at night. Whatever.

Stimulators and proponents of creativity

These are the things we want to cultivate as much as possible. Build these into your life and guard them with tenacity. These are not replacements for talent, knowledge, and perseverance — rather they are the things that serve as both the seedbed and the greenhouse in which creativity grows and flourishes.

  • Community: You need community to help cultivate your ideas, encourage you to keep working, and to speak truth to you about the things you’re afraid of. If you work from home, community can be tricky. Have a chat room where some of your close friends are available; get out and go to coffee shops or parks; work from a coworking space regularly; eat meals with friends; actively engage in non-work-related relationships.

  • Clear goals: Having a defined goal can help us to focus on actually accomplishing our idea and making it happen. Looming, unanswered questions often lead to inaction and procrastination. Overcoming that is often as simple as defining an end goal. Of course, it’s worth noting that sometimes you just want to go out and take photographs and who cares what you shoot. Nothing wrong with that either, of course.

  • Trust: You have to trust your skills, trust your gut, and trust your value as a contributor. You’re not an impostor. And the more you learn and the more experience you gain, the more your skills will grow. But if you wait until you’ve “arrived” to begin your journey, it’s a logical impossibility that you will ever actually arrive. You have to step out the front door and start walking.

  • Experience: The more times we’ve gone down the same path, the more familiar with it we become. Experience breeds confidence. And confidence is the opposite of doubt. Thus, the more we do the work, the better we get at it. In part, we are getting better because that’s what happens when you practice. But also, we get better because the confidence which experience breeds helps us to loosen up, relax, and take new risks.

  • Rest: A surprisingly critical part of maintaining a consistently creative lifestyle is stepping away from the creative work at hand in order to recharge. The mind is like a battery, however — it recharges by running. Don’t default to TV and video games as your forms of rest. Get plenty of sleep. Take walks or drives. If you work with your mind, try resting with your hands and build something out of wood or plant a garden. Read. Etc.

  • Diligence: This includes spending our time wisely, having a routine, focus, and automation. Diligence isn’t a personality type, it’s a skill we learn. Some of us had a good work ethic instilled in us by our parents, some of us have had to cultivate it on our own later in life. It is silly to think a creative person should live without routine, discipline, or accountability. Sure, inspiration often comes to us when we least expect it, and so by all means, let us allow exceptions to our schedules. But sitting around being idle while we wait for inspiration is a good way to get nothing done. And worse, it is also a way to let the creative juices get stagnant.

Other factors and variables

There are some response-based factors that don’t make or break an artist in and of themselves, but, depending on what they are (and our response to them), they can empower or handicap us.

  • Tools: Tools do not an artist make nor break; but the right tools can empower us to be more efficient and the wrong tools can slow us down.

  • Constraint: Constraint often breeds creativity because it forces us to think outside of the box, but too much constraint can actually stifle a project’s full potential.

  • Praise & criticism: The positive and negative feedback of people can be dangerous. If we take it to heart too much, it can easily lead to pride or depression. We should glean from the feedback we get, but not let it steer us in our goals and direction. One of the most dangerous questions a creative person can ask themselves is: “What if the critics are right?” If they’re right, you’ll already have known it. Let the council of your peers lead you, not the one-off praise or rejection of strangers.

  • Success & failure: Similar to praise and criticism, success and failure can be dangerous. Our successes and failures should be things we learn from and use as stepping stones in our ever-continuing journey to make awesome things. Successes and failures should be celebrated and learned from, but don’t treat them as stopping points.

  • Environment: A positive work environment can do wonders for your daily creative productivity. A distracting environment can stifle things. Do what you can to set up and maintain an awesome environment that fosters inspiration, creativity, focus, and fun.

* * *

As Hemingway said: “Write drunk; edit sober.” Alcohol aside, the point is that creating without inhibition results in better work in the end. Have fun when making, and go back later to fix those typos and bunny trails.

But, that’s not to say fun is the premier goal that in the fight to stay creative. The goal — the hope — is that we can do our best creative work, day in and day out, for years and years.

What’s so great about having fun in our creative work is that it stands as a signal, telling us we are “in the zone”. When we’re having fun in our creative work it usually means we feel safe to dream big and to take new risks. Not to mention, when we’re having fun, it gives us a natural energy that helps us persevere and bring our ideas to life.

* * *

P.S. This topic of staying creative has a significant presence in my book, Delight is in the Details. It’s such a critical discussion that I also made a video about it. You can watch the video here and buy the book here.

Flickr 3.0

Flickr for iPhone version 3

Flickr shipped a massive update to their iPhone app just a few days ago. As an avid user of both Flickr and an iPhone, I wanted to share my thoughts about their new app and bit about the state of Flickr in general.

In short, it’s a fantastic app sporting one of the best iOS 7 updates I’ve seen. It has many visual tie-ins with the also-recently-updated Flickr website. All in all, I am encouraged about the future of Flickr and their resolve to avoid obsolescence.

Instagram Inspiration

There is a lot of Instagram-type inspiration going on, and I like it. When scrolling down the main timeline view you can double-tap on an image favorite it; all images in your main timeline view are shown as edge-to-edge squares even if the image itself is a different aspect ratio.

The notifications screen that shows all the activity happening on your account (people who have liked your images, favorited them, and/or new followers) is also reminiscent of the Instagram notification screen.

In the main photo stream timeline, when someone has uploaded several photos, you see them as a collage of 2 or 3. You can tap on one of the photos you see to bring that photo’s detail view, or you can tap the button to “view all photos” and you’re taken to a gallery-type view showing all the photos in that set.

Navigating around the app

Virtually everything within the app is tappable as a link, which is great. It’s very easy to find and explore new photos and photographers, and thus it’s easy to drill down deep within the app.

Alas, there is no shortcut to get back to any of the top level tabs of the app. Suppose you tap on someone’s photo, then go to their profile timeline page, then tap onto another photo in their timeline, tap onto the comments of that photo, and then tap onto the someone who left a comment to view their profile timeline. Well, now you’re 5 layers deep into the app and it will take 5 taps to get back to the top. And, to add some lemon juice, to exit out of an individual photo view, you have to tap the “x” that’s in the top-right corner of the screen, but to go back a level when you’re on someone’s profile page, you have to tap the back arrow that is on the top-left of the screen. Moreover, since the Flickr app doesn’t have any gestural-based navigation (you can’t swipe from left-to-right to go back), the only way to navigate out of someone’s profile photo stream view is to scroll to the top to reveal the back button.

Overall, the app is extremely well designed and easy to navigate and figure out. The nature of the design and content encourage (in a good way) getting lost in the app and discovering photos and photographers. Just an easier way to get back to the trail head is all I’m asking for.

Pull to Refresh

The pull-to-refresh animation is quite clever. If you’re at the top of the main timeline view, pulling down reveals a white dot. As you continue to pull down to refresh, the white dot gradually turns pink as it simultaneously gets surrounded by a thick blue line (the two colors of the Flick logo). Then the blue line and pink dot separate to form the the two-dot Flickr logo and they sort of spin/orbit around one another.

This animation is even cooler when you pull to refresh from someone’s profile page. The blue line forms around the person’s circle avatar, and those two dots orbit around one another as the page refreshes and then the avatar sort of slingshots back up to where it was.

Auto-Uploading and Privacy

The Flickr app can auto-upload your iPhone photos just like Dropbox does.

So far as I can tell, once you’ve enabled the app’s auto-uploading feature, only your preceding photographs (and screenshots) will be uploaded to Flickr. It won’t begin uploading your whole iPhone Camera Roll.

All your auto-uploaded photos are automatically set to private. This is, in fact, a setting that you cannot change. I like that it’s a non-adjustable setting because it means nobody will accidentally set all their uploads to be public.

Photos that are set to private won’t show up in any public timelines and they are hidden from anyone who views your Flickr profile. You, however, will see the photos the same way all other photos appear in your timeline, and you can set any image to be public if you wish.

Within the iPhone app, photos that are set to private have a little lock icon in their top-left corner. On the Flickr website, the only way to know if a photo is set to private or not is by going to the image’s permalink page where you can see a lock icon.

On the left is what my Flickr photo stream looks like to me, and on the right is what it looks like to others.

Flickr for iPhone version 3

p.s. Here’s what it looks like in a web browser.

For photos that you upload manually from the Flickr app, you are given the option to set the photo’s visibility to Public, Private, Friends only, Family only, or Friends and Family only. (For those not familiar with how Friends and Family works in Flickr, when you chose to follow someone you can define if they are a friend or a family member. Thus, you’re given the option to also set a photo’s visibility to only those groups. Which is actually really great.)

You can also share the upload to Twitter, Facebook, and/or Tumblr. As well as adding the photo to a location (via the Foursquare API), and adding to any of your Flickr Albums (or create a new Album).

The idea of Flickr as a photo Syncing and sharing service

Flickr gives you 1TB (!) of free photo storage, which is pretty amazing.

That amount of storage is certainly enticing when trying to consider a photo backup service to use, but I see two downsides:

  1. For one I’m not sure if I want all my iPhone photos to be in my Flickr account. The past couple years I’ve been only putting my best / favorite photos up to Flickr. There are a lot of silly, blurry, goofy images on my iPhone’s camera roll.
  2. Secondly, not counting the iPhone app, there’s no automatic uploading of my photos to Flickr. I have to manually upload my images. And, suppose I were to upload today all my photos from 2013 — they would appear at the top of my Flickr timeline, because Flickr doesn’t auto-sort by original photo date.

While there are some cool possibilities with using Flickr as a hub for photo sharing and syncing, it’s still not there yet.

In-App Filters

The Flickr app continues to let you take and edit photos as well.

Below is an image of my wife, Anna, holding our new nephew, Simon. The image itself was shot with my E-M10. In clockwise starting with the top-left image: (1) the original out-of-camera JPG; (2) a version edited with the new Flickr app using the Brooklyn filter; (3) edited on the iPhone VSCO Cam app using the F2 filter; and (4) a version edited in Lightroom on my Mac using the VSCO Film 05, Agfa Vista 100 preset.

Flickr for iPhone version 3

(Tap the image to bring up an enlarged view.)

I tried to pick the filter in each app that I liked best for this photograph. Here, comparing them side-by-side here, the Flickr version looks the most dramatic and “cheesy”. I think the VSCO Film version looks the most natural and nice. The VSCO Cam version looks great as well, though it too — for a one-tap filter application on an iPhone, I’m impressed.

Miscellany

  • For a few days, if you installed the Flickr iPhone app onto your iPad you got a watermelon icon. Apparently it was an easter egg placed there by Flickr as a hint that the iPad app is coming soon.

  • When you’re in the detail view of a photograph, you can “toss it around” just like you can with Tweetbot 3 for iPhone. This is a neat and fun touch. However, it’s also the only way to exit the detail view aside from tapping the “x” in the upper-right corner.

    When you tap a photo, it brings up that image in full-view. Tap it again and all the text and photo info on the screen disappears, giving you the “lightbox” mode. Tap in lightbox mode to go back to image-only view with the relevant text again.

  • When leaving a comment, there is no way to reply to a particular person’s comment. You can only type your comment out, but not have it be an “@reply”.

Wrap

The new Flickr app is one of the nicest iOS 7 apps I’ve seen. Its links and tappable areas are clear, it does a great job using blur effects, and it’s easy and delightful to use.

Flickr has so many things right. The whole way the site works is clever, thought through, and useful. But times are changing and so there is still much that Flickr needs to catch up on. But I love that it’s making serious strides forward, and that Yahoo is taking the service seriously. I’ve been a Flickr user for years and I use it now more than I ever have. It’s encouraging and exciting to see these improvements to their website, service, and mobile apps.

Screentime Art

With the recent post and podcast talking about kids and screentime and just the prevalence of touch screens in our day to day lives and relationships, here are two incredible illustrations on the topic that speak volumes.

First is this cover from The New Yorker’s 2009 Halloween edition. This artwork is from half a decade ago, and it’s just as relevant today if not more so.

The New Yorker

And here’s something new. It’s the latest piece of street art from London’s famous graffiti artist, Banksy.

Banksy - Mobile Lovers

Perhaps these two pieces are part of the same story. After taking the kids out trick or treating, mom and dad come home where they can be alone with their phones.

A note about shawnblanc.net and the Heartbleed Bug

Here on shawnblanc.net, I use SSL encryption on a few pages related to the membership sign-up and checkout process. Unfortunately, the OpenSSL libraries in use by this site were affected by the Heartbleed bug. If anyone targeted my server to exploit the vulnerability, it would only have affected members.

This is to let you know that my site’s vulnerability to the Heartbleed Bug has been patched.

My hosting provider (Media Temple) proactively updated my server’s OpenSSL libraries on Tuesday night, April 8th. Once I confirmed my site was no longer vulnerable, I had my SSL certificate re-generated.

Additionally, as a precaution for all members, I’ve logged everyone out from the site and changed the salt hashes that WordPress uses. All members will have to log back in to access the Membership section.

When you do log back in, please change your password. This can be done from the “Your Profile” page.

If you have any questions, please feel free to ping me on Twitter or email me.

Thanks,

— Shawn

A Visual History of OmniFocus for Mac

The Omni Group has been around for 25 years.

Founded in 1989 as a technology consulting firm, they used to build custom software for NextSTEP users until Apple bought NeXT in 1997. Now Omni builds and sells their own software for OS X and iOS. Not least of which is OmniFocus.

But did you know OmniFocus for Mac was somewhat built by chance?

OmniFocus’s roots are as an add-on to OmniOutliner Pro called Kinkless (kGTD), which was built and developed by Ethan Schoonover. Though it was incredibly brilliant, kGTD was a hack. It was a bunch of AppleScripts that sat on top of a single OmniOutliner document with some custom buttons and even some Quicksilver actions for quick entry.

Here is what Kinkless GTD looked like (circa 2006):

Khoi Vihn's Kinkless GTD Setup

In 2006, Omni Group asked Schoonover, along with Merlin Mann, to help take the ideas and functions of kGTD and turn them into an official Omni task-management application…

Here’s the first publicly displayed mockup of what OmniFocus could have looked like:

Original OmniFocus UI Mockup

After more than a year of private development with a group of about 500 alpha users, OmniFocus went into public beta in November 2007. At that time they also began pre-selling licenses and OmniFocus pre-sold over 2,500 copies in the first 5 days of the public beta.1

Finally, on January 8, 2008, OmniFocus 1.0 was launched.2

OmniFocus 1.0 (circa January 2008):

OmniFocus Version 1.0

Here’s the latest public version of OmniFocus (version 1.10):

OmniFocus User Interface, version 1.8

As you can see, not much in the UI has changed from the original Kinkless implementation of 2005 to what OmniFocus is today in 2010. You could say that OmniFocus 2 is kGTD 2.

But all that changed with the beta of OmniFocus for Mac 2.

On February 1, 2013 the beta of OmniFocus 2 for the Mac was introduced.

Beta 1 of OmniFocus 2 (circa Feb 2013):

Beta 1 of OmniFocus 2 for Mac

Beta 1 of OmniFocus 2 for Mac

However, during the beta testing process, the Omni Group realized they needed to go back to the drawing board, and in June 2013 they pressed pause on the public beta.

Last year, during the testing window, I gave the beta 1 a good college try but just kept drifting back to my original version of OmniFocus that I’ve been using for the past 4 years. In short, I never felt all that comfortable navigating the previous OmniFocus beta.

However, earlier this week, Omni Group re-introduced the OmniFocus for Mac beta with a significantly updated design.

Beta 2 of OmniFocus 2 for Mac (circa March 2014)

Beta 2 of OmniFocus 2 for Mac

There are quite a few noticeable changes between the beta 1 and beta 2 designs of the new OmniFocus for Mac.

For one, the left-aligned checkboxes have been swapped out with right-aligned checkcircles (a cue from the iPhone app). Additionally, the whole task hierarchy now has a clear structure that flows from left to right.

On the left-most side are the tabs for different views, then in the next column is the list of information relevant to the selected tab, next to that is the main task list displaying the tasks for the project, context, or date selected, and then on the right-most pane is the task’s information panel where you can fine-tune metadata related to that task if you so desire.

Aside from the right-hand alignment of the new checkcircles, I think every one of the changes in this newest OmniFocus beta is an improvement on an app that has been desperate for a visual overhaul for years.

The new beta version of OmniFocus for Mac feels peaceful to me. It’s open, clean, organized, and logical. I like it.


  1. Contrast that against today’s public beta which has 30,000 users on the list.
  2. It seems like OmniFocus has been around for ages, but it’s actually younger than the iPhone.

Dumb

The more I read about smartwatches, the more I appreciate my “dumb” watches.

Analog Watches

These are the two watches I wear. The one on the left is a Tissot, and the one on the right a Seiko automatic. Most days I wear the Seiko.

Here is an exhaustive rundown of all the functionality of my watches: They tell the time of day (albeit they’re imprecise, and usually off by half a minute or so) and the date. The Seiko, being fancy, also tells the day of the week. And since neither watch knows what month it is, a few times per year I have to adjust the date forward from “29″ or “31″ to “1″.

That’s it.

But I don’t just wear a watch to know what time it is. Part of the reason I wear one is as an excuse not to pull out my iPhone.

So often I’d be standing in line at the grocery store and I’d pull out my iPhone to see what time it was. Then, out of sheer habit, I’d swipe to unlock and the next thing you know I’m mindlessly scrolling through tweets or reading emails without actually acting on them. Then the line would move, I’d put the iPhone back in my pocket, and if you’d asked me what time it was I couldn’t even tell you.

My analog watches are my reminder that utility exists apart from an internet connection and usefulness doesn’t require the latest software.

My watches don’t have an interactive touch display. Nor do they have Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, LTE, or USB. Heck, the Seiko doesn’t even have a battery — if I don’t wear it for a day or two then it stops working until I wind it again.

There are no apps for my watches. I can’t pair them with my iPhone, can’t give them voice commands, can’t get directions from them, nor can I use them to change my music to the next track.

On the flip side, my watches don’t require updates, and they won’t be “slow and outdated” in one year’s time after the next version comes out. In fact, they will never grow outdated and irrelevant unless they break altogether.

In 15 or 20 years my sons will hopefully think it’s special when I pass down one of my old watches to them.

That’s not to say vintage technology isn’t special. But an old watch is simultaneously special and usable. In 20 years my original iPhone, as special and nostalgic as it will be, probably won’t even power on.

My affinity for analog watches doesn’t mean I dislike the concept of the smartwatch. My iPhone is one of the most incredible items I have ever owned and used. But my experience with it has also taught me that the promise of convenient notifications and relevant information is almost always paired with the reality of constant distractions, tugs for attention, and perhaps even an addiction to the “just checks”.

When I look down at my watch I know exactly what it will show me: the time.

Checkmark 2

Here is a huge update to my favorite location-based reminders app, Checkmark.

In addition to location-based reminders, Checkmark 2 now supports scheduled and repeating reminders as well as a general project/list section. So not only is Checkmark the best app for location-based reminders, but it now aims to be your one-stop shop for all tasks and reminders, regardless of when, where, or what they are for.

I’m still deep into OmniFocus for my general to-do list, and I usually use Siri or Fantastical for setting time-based reminders. But the location-centric stuff in Checkmark is the best there is, and now it’s even better than before.

The big update with how Checkmark handles the location-based reminders is that you can now create location groups. Hooray!

Now, I don’t know about you, but my wife and I don’t shop at just one grocery store all the time; we shop at like six. In Checkmark 2, I created a location group with all the grocery stores we shop at. Then, no matter which of those stores I show up to, Checkmark will remind me of any items I’ve added to that group. (Gosh would I love to see shared reminders with this.)

Here’s how you create a group:

  • You start out just like you would create a location.
  • From the “Where” section, tap the plus button and name your location (example: “Grocery Stores” / “Hardware Stores” / “Ice Cream Shops”).
  • Next tap “Add from map” to search for the places you want to add (or Add from location if you’re at the place you want to add).
  • Once you’ve found one of the locations and the pin for it has dropped, then tap into the search box again to search for the next place you want to add.
  • Once you’ve got all the pins for that group dropped, then tap “Done”
  • Select your icon and tap Done again.

Now you have a location group and you are on your way to being the the master of never forgetting to check out this season’s sink selection next time you go to the hardware store to buy charcoal for your grill.

You can add or remove locations from a group by tapping into that group, tapping the settings gear icon in the upper-right corner, and then editing the location. I have found creating and editing groups to be a little bit finicky at times. But once a group is created, then your golden.

In addition to the awesomeness of the new groups feature, Checkmark is still faster than using any other app for adding a location-based reminder (even for specific spots, not groups). And, most importantly, Checkmark is incredibly reliable for triggering upon the arrival / departure of a location.

My one quibble with Checkmark is it’s assumption that time-based reminders are the most important. When launching Checkmark, it opens to wherever you last were in the app. If however, the app has been cleared from memory since the last time you launched it, or if you’ve restarted your iPhone, then Checkmark’s default landing screen is the “When” section. And currently there’s no way to change this setting. Which oftentimes means creating a new location-based reminder requires two additional taps: one to open the basement menu and one to tap the “Where” tab. But this is a minor quibble, and I’ve heard it may be resolved in a future update to the app.

I’ve long been a user and a fan of Checkmark because I think it handles location-based reminders better than any other app out there, including Apple’s own Reminders app. You can snag Checkmark 2 in the App Store for just $3.

Reporter, Day One, and Launch Center Pro

About five weeks ago, on February 6th to be exact, Nicholas Felton’s Reporter app shipped.

The whole gist of the app is to give yourself a pretty good idea of how you spend your time, where you spend your time, and who you spend it with. I set up Reporter to ask me 11 questions related to where I was, who I was with, my outfit, if I was eating/drinking anything, my mood and general feeling of productivity for the day, the tools I was using at the time, and what the last app I had launched was.

My first report was logged on at 9:49am on Thursday morning, February 6. My last report at 1:04pm on Monday morning, February 17. I only used the app for 12 days. As much as I loved the idea of Reporter, the multiple interruptions throughout my day weren’t worth the aggregate data I was collecting.

From the 12 days I used the app, I learned that 92-percent of the time I was feeling productive with my day and 98-percent of the time I was in a happy mood. Most of my outfits consisted of pants, slippers, and a sweater (Polar Vortex, remember?); only once did I wear a hat and only once did I get prompted for a report while in my underwear. I mostly drank water. My most commonly-used tools were my Mac and my Clicky Keyboard. A little over half the time I was working; the vast majority of my time was spent at home; most of the time I was alone, but when I was with someone it was usually my oldest son, Noah.

One interesting-slash-revealing fact I learned was regarding the apps I was launching on my iPhone. Reporter would ask me what app I had previously launched. I answered this by double-tapping my Home button to bring up the multitasking card view just enough to see what app was next in line. The most common app I found there was Threes game, with Email in second place, and then Tweetbot. Hmm.

Is this the truth revealing itself? Perhaps. But perhaps not. As I pontificated on one of my Shawn Today podcast episodes a few weeks ago when talking about this same topic, I recall being much more likely to fill out the Reporter report if I was already doing something non-trivial on my iPhone or if I was not in the company of others.

I often would ignore the reports when I was in the middle of reading, or writing, or when I was with other people (especially when I was with Anna). So it’s hard to say just how accurate these reports reflect my life, let alone the 12-day segment.

In the end, I stopped using Reporter because, as I mentioned above, the frequent interruptions were not worth the aggregate data they were generating.

But I’ve found another way to help automate the “reporting” process using some apps that I already have in my iOS tool belt: Launch Center Pro and Day One.

I came across these Launch Center Pro actions that Josiah Wiebe cooked up, and I think they’re very clever. Josiah has put together a handful of customized Launch Center Pro actions for the purpose of logging meals, drinks, books, films, and more. Using the actions in Launch Center Pro basically enables you to answer a few questions (some of which can even be multiple-choice) and then auto-insert those answers into Day One in a nicely formatted layout.

For example, here’s my Coffee Log entry from yesterday morning’s brew.

I also installed several of Josiah’s actions into my Launch Center Pro, and for the past ten days I’ve been using the coffee log and the daily summary. Though, I tweaked his actions slightly to build versions that are more suited to my own needs and layout preferences.

For example, since I almost always get my coffee from one of two local roasters — Parisi or Broadway (if I didn’t roast it myself) — I changed my Coffee Log action to offer the Roaster as a multiple choice option. And for my Daily Summary action, I set up a reminder in Launch Center Pro to ping me each evening.

Since Day One already is grabbing my location, weather, steps taken, and I can add a photo if I like (a selfie, perhaps?), I find these daily summaries to be an excellent compromise when compared to the more-detailed, but more frequent logging of Reporter.

However, it’s not a perfect system. For one, I miss is the way Reporter auto-populated certain answers making it easy to answer the same thing again. In LCP, if I am entering in the same answer to the same question on a regular basis I either have to type that answer in manually, or decide if I want to limit my answers to a pre-defined multiple choice list. There is no option (that I know of) to offer a multiple-choice prompt that can be converted into a text entry prompt on the fly.

And, now that I’m entering in more and more entries which use markdown-based tables and header tags, my Day One timeline view is not so pretty any more. Because Day One shows the raw markdown in its “timeline” view. I mentioned this to Paul Mayne on Twitter, however, and he said it’s something they’d like to add to the 2.0 update of Day One.

Speaking of potential future updates to Day One, I think it’d be great to see this sort of “guided/automated logging” built into Day One. The app already offers reminders that remind you to write in your journal, but sometimes that wide-open blank page is just too intimidating. Having specific questions can not only lead to more frequent journaling/logging, but when you’re answering the same ones over and over, though it may feel silly in the moment, over time it paints a picture about our lives that when we look back at it, we are reminded of who we were and who we are.

That’s why I’m personally quite the advocate for daily journaling. Because little things, day by day, usually don’t seem like much in the moment, but over the course of months and years, we are changing and maturing as individuals and it can be so valuable and downright encouraging to be able to look back and see that change.

Or, in the words of Kayli Stollak: “All you need is a sentence, a word, a thought, and suddenly you remember who you actually were.”

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